One highly regarded newspaper writer wrote that the legislature was in "disarray."
Disarray would be easier to handle than the complete dysfunction that I found during the last week. While the House and Senate conferees on the committee of conference on two key budget bills simply could not agree on the issue of the day, expanded gambling, they forced a stalemate.
Citizens have a right to wonder why their legislators canít get the job done, and frankly, I wonder too.
I was an alternate on the committees of conference on two bills dealing with the stateís current financial dilemma. For the purposes of locking-in on the projected revenue stream between now and the end of the current biennium, as chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, I played an active role.
The agreement between the House and Senate conferees was that the state faces a $295 million shortfall between now and June 30, 2011 when the current biennium ends. Coming together on the projected deficit took an hour.
It took over four hours simply to get to the table on Friday on what turned out to be the last meeting of the committee of conference. The understanding was that after a late Thursday night session the committee would reconvene at 10 a.m. We did not go into session again until around 1:30 p.m. wasting nearly four hours.
I have no idea what was going on with House conferees. For Senate conferees, it was hours of conversation, especially about "what ifs" as various funding options were discussed. There was the drop-by visit of the Governor, who with language no one could miss said he would veto any legislation that included revenue from gambling as a partial solution to the budget shortfall.
After the Governor met privately in separate meetings with Senate and House conferees, the committee reconvened. Senate conferees quickly rejected a House plan for a committee to be created to develop a gambling oversight group with an eye to expanded gambling down the road.
That, of course, was the issue all week... expanded gambling.
The issue of expanded gambling, as
one observer said,
Led by Senator Lou DíAllesandro (Manchester), the Senate has voted for expanded gambling. The House has rejected expanded gambling bills over and over again by wide margins.
The second floor hallway outside the committee room was shoulder to shoulder with men and women sporting orange badges indicating they are lobbyists. A few of them were there to advocate for expanded gambling. They, and others in the committees of conference, watched as a donnybrook over gambling stalled the entire legislative process.
Over the issue of expanded gambling, the committee of conference fell apart as House and Senate conferees went their separate ways.
While more than 60 other committees of conference were quietly meeting in the State House and the Legislative Office Building, public attention was focused on the committee of conference dealing with the budget, and that meant the public saw the failure of the process to work.
Now, the legislature will meet for the once projected final session of 2010, and by order of the Governor and Council will be called to a special session to resolve budget deficit issues.
What will happen? Who knows?
It is accepted that expanded gambling would generate new revenue to the state but it would impact our state brand and create social problems and associated costs. We know the most optimistic revenue estimates from expanded gambling will only have a minor impact on the current financial situation, but gambling has become the issue of division between the House and Senate.
For some legislators, the issue is very personal. The result is that animosities developed that prevented collaboration between key House and Senate leaders.
I am in my eighth year as a state Senator and I do not believe there has been such a huge divide between the House and Senate during that time. This divide, coming when the state faces revenue shortfalls and is cutting funding for social services that adversely impact the lives of some of our neediest citizens, is not just unfortunate Ö it is a tragedy.
Any agreement on the budget will not be good news. We are out of money. Even our savings account, known as the "rainy day fund," with less $10 million, down from nearly $100 just a year ago, was up for grabs. In a sense, everything is on the table.
Senate and House conferees can agree on nearly $250 million of budget adjustments, but cannot agree on whether or not to book $80 million of revenue from expanded gambling.
It may not happen, but what a good day it will be when the legislature can do its business without expanded gambling being the dominant issue of the day. It has literally tied the legislature in knots during the most difficult state financial crisis of our lifetime.
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