In a Wednesday forum hosted at the annual meeting of the Connecticut Organization of Small Towns, state legislative leaders took questions from town officials on their legislative priorities. The forum was moderated by WTNH anchor Dennis House, and included both Republican and Democratic leaders.
Speaker of the House Matt Ritter and House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney and Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, all fielded questions ranging from municipal aid to Eversource.
Though lawmakers largely avoided making commitments to specific policies, together they expressed a commitment to provide municipalities with the full level of state aid, including in education funds. Looney and Candelora also both expressed support for regional solutions to affordable housing.
Looney said the level of aid to municipalities will largely depend on what happens with federal aid going forward. He said he is more “hopeful” of another federal aid passage that includes direct aid for states and municipalities than he was before two Democrats were elected to fill Georgia’s senate seats.
“I’m hopeful we’ll have a better federal partner this year,” Looney said.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenenthal told those attending the COST forum that the next relief bill Congress passes must include direct aid to state and local governments, as well as additional direct stimulus payments to individuals.
Looney said the state needs to maintain its municipal aid commitments, especially public school funding. He also said he wants to see the payment in lieu of taxes program funded at a greater level.
Kelly agreed the state has a responsibility to make sure that cities and towns have the resources they need, also singling out the importance of funding the education formula.
“We believe that you should remain whole,” Kelly said.
Ritter said state revenue figures that will be released next week will be better than expected, and the state isn’t going to cut municipal aid. He said the amount of money available to schools in the federal stimulus bill is “staggering,” but the state is still waiting for guidance on how to distribute it.
Candelora said “we would all agree” that the foundation of the municipal education funding program needs to be funded more. For that and other municipal aid programs, including the PILOT program, to work properly, the legislature needs to look at putting more funding into them, he said.
Ritter said there is not a uniform approach to affordable housing within the Democratic caucus, and the divide is not limited to urban-suburban. He said that he balances the desire for affordable housing in suburban areas with his desire to have people live in Hartford.
Because of concerns with urban development, Ritter said he doesn’t see a large bill on affordable housing being passed that does not address economic development zones in cities.
“We’re not going to be able to force things down people’s throats, it’s going to be more an incentive-based system,” Ritter said. “But it is a real concern. I hope municipal leaders will pay attention to it, because I think if incentives don’t work – if we can’t find a way to do it amicably – the pressure will continue to mount.”
Looney said there needs to be more regional solutions in economic development and affordable housing. One option is to require towns to allow more dense developments around transit hubs, like train stations, than what local regulations may allow, he said.
Candelora said housing isn’t the only area where there are issues with affordability in Connecticut, and he fears the middle class being “squeezed out.” He said he also supports more regional approaches to affordable housing.
Larger cities may be a more desirable place for younger people to live than rural areas, he said. He also emphasized differences between communities, referencing “environmentally sensitive” watershed lands that he said he does not want used for dense housing.
“It’s certainly going to be a broad discussion, but I don’t think we can have a top-down approach that’s been suggested,” Candelora said.
Without saying any names, Ritter referenced “one or two very loud people” who have been speaking on the affordable housing issue.
“My only thing I would say is, the loudest people are often not in the room when policy decisions are being made,” Ritter said.
Looney said that Tropical Storm Isaias in August highlighted significant problems with Eversource. He touted the wide-ranging accountability bill lawmakers passed in the September special session that will, in part, impose penalties on Eversource and United Illuminating if they don’t restore power within four days of an outage, but said lawmakers needed to go further.
Gov. Ned Lamont, addressing the COST forum, said that the good news was that FEMA approved Connecticut on Tuesday for 75 percent reimbursement for storm damage caused by Isaias. The response to the storm was a mess, he said.
He praised the push towards performance based ratemaking that PURA is evaluating now, saying Eversource and UI shouldn’t be guaranteed the same rate of return whether they do a good or bad job.
Looney said one problem he sees with Eversource is its reliance on out-of-state crews to restore power after a major storm – a system Looney believes makes the company’s emergency response slower than they could be.
“We heard anecdotes about out-of-state crews being brought in and having to wait hours for an Eversource person to come and direct them where they should actually be working,” Looney said. “So, I think there are a lot of problems with Eversource that we need to continue to look at.”