Blamed and bemoaned, the 2.5% municipal spending cap that’s been frustrating town and school officials across the state may be headed for history’s scrap heap of abandoned ideas.

Gov. Dannel Malloy announced Tuesday that “mandate relief for cities and towns” would be a centerpiece of the state budget he presents next week, and issued a list of “mandate relief proposals” he’ll put before the legislature.

“At the very top of his list of priorities is the removal of that cap,” state Sen. Toni Boucher told Ridgefield’s school board Tuesday night, Jan. 31.

“The budget I will present to the General Assembly next week will provide greater flexibility in the areas cited most frequently in need of mandate relief by municipal leaders, organizations and state commissions,” Malloy said in his announcement earlier in the day.

The release continued: “Among other mandate relief proposals, specific provisions will: Eliminate the municipal spending cap for most municipalities …”

The governor listed more than a dozen other mandate relief ideas, touching areas that range from collective bargaining rules to prevailing wage requirements to fostering “flexibility for school districts on curriculum instruction and professional development.”

Short-term solution?

The prospect of relief from the 2.5% spending cap appealed to Ridgefield school officials. But will it help with the 2017-18 budget they’re currently working on?

“What’s the legislative timeline?” board member Michael Taylor asked. “By the end of February, our board has to pass our budget on to other town agencies.”

“What I’m hearing,” said school board Chairwoman Fran Walton, “the mandate relief will be for 2018-19, not the budget we’re now building.”

Superintendent Karen Baldwin said communications she’d received suggested mandate relief would hit in the 2018-19 budget.

Boucher said the committee-driven budget process in Hartford offered opportunities for the legislature to adjust what the governor presents.

“In those committees you can change that language,” she said. “We could change a lot of that, change the effective date.”

Skepticism

Baldwin was still skeptical that changes could be pushed through fast enough to help schools and towns working on their 2017-18 budgets.

“It would have to be speeded up to the nth degree,” Baldwin said. “We have a referendum in May. We can’t go back to the people and say, We’re going to add a half-million in, because this was reduced by the municipal spending cap.”

Baldwin focused on the wording in the governor’s mandate relief announcement: “municipal spending cap eliminated in most districts.”

Baldwin said “communities that have a referendum process” — towns like Ridgefield, where voters directly approve or reject budgets — shouldn’t have the 2.5% state cap.

“If it’s the will of the people to support 4.9%, that’s our cap,” Baldwin said.

Boucher said Malloy expects adjustments.

“He did say he knew a lot of what he was proposing would be, could be changed by the legislature,” she said.

The catch

A Republican often critical of the Democratic governor and legislative majority in Hartford, Boucher added a warning.

“For me, I’m always suspicious,” she said. “There’s always a catch. I think he’s laying the groundwork for much smaller reimbursements.”

The governor’s State of the State address in early January pointed toward changes in educational financing — especially for wealthier towns. After talking about reforming the pension system, and reducing the number of state employees, the governor addressed state aid to towns and schools.

“The state provides a total of $5.1 billion in municipal assistance,” the governor said. “That’s more than one-fifth of our overall budget this year, making it our biggest expense — not state employee pensions, not Medicaid, not debt service, not salary and benefits for our employees; town aid accounts for the largest portion of our state budget.

“It simply would not be fair for us to talk about continued state agency reductions, or talk about the need for labor concessions, without talking about new ways to provide town aid. …

“Of the $5.1 billion distributed to municipalities, 81% of that — $4.1 billion — is educational funding. … Are we spending this money the best way possible? Are we ensuring that all students, regardless of life circumstances into which they were born, regardless of what town or city they live — can receive a quality public education?

“I don’t believe we meet that standard,” Malloy said. “And I will point out that a recent court decision says that as well. …

“Connecticut needs a new way to calculate educational aid — one that guarantees equal access to a quality education regardless of ZIP code. …

“The budget I will present you next month will outline a more equitable system for providing town aid. It will be based on the local property tax burden, student need, and current enrollment. The system will be designed to be more fair, transparent, accountable and adaptable — meaning that it will provide flexibly to fit into the needs of a given community. The result will be a fairer distribution of our state’s limited funds.”

The governor expects to present his budget Wednesday, Feb. 8.

“It’s a very political process,” Boucher told the school board Tuesday night, “with different interests always pushing and pulling.”