Connecticut budget-fixing ideas: Legalized pot, new casino

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — They may have snuffed out the idea of legalizing marijuana in past legislative sessions, but Connecticut lawmakers now include it among several speculative proposals they are seriously considering to balance the state’s deficit-plagued budget.

Democrats are also pitching highway tolls and at least one new casino to help generate more state revenue to fill the state’s empty coffers. Connecticut’s projected budget deficit recently swelled from $1.7 billion to $2.3 billion for the fiscal year beginning July 1. It could be as high as $2.7 billion in the second year of the two-year budget of about $40 billion.

It’s somewhat uncertain how much revenue these ideas will actually generate. For example, the potential revenue from tolls is unclear because the state is limited to the type of tolls it can have.

Meanwhile, Republicans offered up their own unproven proposal. They contend an additional $260 million can be saved next fiscal year in unidentified labor concessions from state workers. That would be on top of the $700 million that Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration is now seeking from state employee union leaders in closed-door negotiations but has yet to secure.

“I think some are more speculative than others,” he said of the budget-saving ideas that are sure to come up in discussions this week during bipartisan budget negotiations.

A closer look at the ideas:

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MARIJUANA LEGALIZATION

Legalizing the sale of marijuana is among the more flashy ideas suggested by House and Senate Democrats. They estimate Connecticut could reap $60 million in fiscal year 2018 and $180 million the next.

It’s questionable, however, whether there’s enough support in the General Assembly to legalize recreational pot. Bills didn’t garner enough support earlier in the year. And Malloy, who is not a particular fan of the concept, questions whether the revenue projections are realistic.

“There’s no immediate amount of money to be had,” he said, pointing out how neighboring Massachusetts — where it’s now legal to possess, use and grow small amounts of the drug, won’t see retail shops open until mid-2018.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, a Democrat, said legislative leaders offered the idea so they could “leave a lot of options on the table” for their members to consider when it comes to finalizing a budget deal. Proponents argue the legislation is a way to regulate an illegal industry and potentially deliver millions of much-needed dollars to the state’s coffers.

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ANOTHER CASINO

The Democrats were also the ones to propose another casino as a way to generate more revenue.

It comes as the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes are seeking legislation that would allow them to build a jointly owned casino in East Windsor to help them compete with the MGM Resorts casino being built in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts. There is also a dueling proposal that would open up the process to other casino developers to build elsewhere in Connecticut.

The Democratic proposal does not refer to either concept. Rather, it calls for authorizing “at least one additional casino” to create and preserve over 6,000 casino and tourism jobs.

It’s not certain how much revenue another casino could generate.

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EVEN MORE LABOR SAVINGS

Both Senate and House Republicans are banking on larger savings from state employees to help cover the growing deficit.

The two caucuses have suggested roughly $260 million more can be achieved in the first year of the two-year, in addition to the $700 million Malloy is currently seeking.

Republican Rep. Melissa Ziobron said the House Republicans’ plan “basically creates parity with the private sector” in areas such as health insurance co-pays and retirement contributions.

But Malloy said it’s “unrealistic” that additional concessions can be secured.

“I’m hopeful that we can reach an agreement in line with what I’ve laid out, with respect to expectations,” he said.

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