March 27, 2007
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING And ROBERT FRAHM, Courant Staff Writers
The Democratic-controlled education committee rewrote part of Gov. M. Jodi Rell's education plan Monday, approving a complicated proposal that provides both additional education money and the option for property tax relief on a sliding scale for all 169 towns.
The bill would provide the biggest increase in educational cost-sharing funds in state history - $198 million - but the measure still requires approval by the House of Representatives and Senate as part of the overall $17.5 billion state budget. The final package, which requires Rell's approval, is not expected to be completed until early June.
The committee's move was made in response to the Rell administration's proposal to overturn a state law that says that any additional money that is designated for education must, in fact, be spent on education. The law, written about eight years ago, was passed after then-Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim and others earmarked state money for non-educational purposes, legislators said.
Rell called for spending even more money than the Democrats - $228 million in cost-sharing funds - but Rell's budget director, Robert Genuario, said he sees the bill as a good starting point for further negotiations.
"I see it as a work in progress," Genuario said Monday night.
Under the committee plan passed Monday, towns were ranked based on the amount of money they now spend per student. The lowest-spending towns will be required to spend the highest percentage of the new state money on education.
For example, the lowest-spending town in the state, Ansonia, will be required to spend 60 percent of the new money on education. The remaining 40 percent could be spent on potential tax relief, but town leaders would have the flexibility to spend some of it on education and some on tax relief.
Other lower-spending towns like East Hartford, Bridgeport, Colchester, Hebron and Tolland - which all spend less than $9,000 per student - would all be required to spend more than 50 percent of their new money on education.
The highest-spending town in the state is Canaan, a tiny community of about 1,000 residents in Litchfield County that spends more than $16,000 per student. The town would have to spend only 5 percent of its additional education cost-sharing grant on education. The remaining 95 percent could be spent on property tax relief.
"We require those who provide the least money for education to do something," said Sen. Thomas Gaffey, a Meriden Democrat who is co-chairman of the education committee. "It's a very rational, reasonable, intelligent proposal to meet the governor halfway."
Gaffey's co-chairman, Democratic Rep. Andrew M. Fleischmann of West Hartford, said he expects the bill to receive approval from the legislature's budget-writing appropriations committee.
The bill calls for spending $198 million in the educational cost-sharing grant, which is far beyond any proposed increase in the past decade.
"This is a bill the appropriations committee is prepared to fund," Fleischmann said. "It's really a historic moment."
But the issue remains controversial because Rell has proposed increasing the state income tax by 10 percent over two years to help pay for the record-breaking increases in education. At least eight committee members, Republicans and Democrats, voted against the measure.
"The numbers are so large," said state Sen. Sam S.F. Caligiuri, a Waterbury Republican who is serving in his first year. "I do not believe we can make this large investment ... without blowing through the spending cap and raising taxes."
Some also opposed the bill's effect on more affluent towns that would pay more in additional state taxes than they would receive in education aid. Greenwich taxpayers, for example, would pour an additional $60 million into the state's coffers under Rell's 10 percent income-tax plan, but the town would receive back only $2.5 million from the state in additional funding. Avon taxpayers would pay an additional $9.4 million in additional taxes in the second year, and their town would receive $1.1 million in the second year of Rell's plan.
Sen. Thomas Herlihy, a Simsbury Republican who represents Avon and other towns, said the bill provides hundreds of millions of dollars, but that the increased funding is "not necessarily going to increase performance" in the public schools.
Gaffey, though, said the bill is designed to help the state's neediest towns under the principle established by a 1977 state Supreme Court ruling on school funding.
Genuario said the Democratic plan does not provide for the proper use of state money for Hartford, which would be allowed to use more money for tax relief than for education spending under the committee proposal.
"Hartford spends a lot on education, but I think they need to spend a lot of the new money on education," Genuario said. "If they're not getting the results, more money needs to go to education."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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