Connecticut House lawmakers on Tuesday took a step towards asserting legislative oversight over how federal COVID relief funds are spent.
State representatives voted 147-0 to advance a bill to the State Senate that would require Gov. Ned Lamont to ask lawmakers to approve his plans to distribute federal COVID aid, using a process similar to how the state sets its budgets.
Like in the budget process, Lamont must have his proposal for spending Connecticut’s share of the $1.9 trillion COVID aid package, which Congress approved last week, reviewed by the state legislature’s Appropriations Committee and approved by the General Assembly. The bill excludes federal aid earmarked for cities and towns.
State Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, said the bill addresses how lawmakers can work with the governor and his administration as a “team” to distribute federal COVID aid.
“We do it side-by-side, Democrats and Republicans, to address how we distribute these dollars to make sure that our people in Connecticut get access,” Walker said.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, told CT Examiner that the Senate will vote on the bill on March 23.
“The bill puts Appropriations in the driver seat for the COVID release funds. It puts us back as a co-equal branch of government in oversight of this bill,” Osten said. “In all other iterations of COVID relief funding the Governor did what he wanted. With this bill it would come to the legislature first just like any other budget bill. We will review it, make modifications and then pass it on.”
The bill would also require Lamont’s budget office to report to the legislature by the end of April how the first two rounds of federal COVID aid were spent.
“The process that has been used so far, there has been general information in the news, and certainly the people in the agencies that have received money know that money has come to them,” Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, ranking Republican on appropriations, said. “But there’s not been a general allocation provided to the people in the state of Connecticut so they can understand, where has this federal money gone? What benefit has been provided to the state of Connecticut?”
House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said lawmakers had been communicating with the governor’s office and that they understand that lawmakers want to ensure a smooth budget process, now that their regular biennial budget has to account for a large amount of federal funding.
“What we wanted to do was ensure clarity about information sharing and ensuring that our chairs of appropriations have the information they need to make an informed decision, but also recognizing that we want to pump the brakes a little bit on spending, and ensure that spending is really being done in a collaborative way,” Rojas said.
Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said they expect federal guidance on the $1.9 trillion relief package Congress approved last week around the time state lawmakers begin final budget deliberations in late April or early May.
“We may have one understanding of what we can do mid-April, and find out in early May that the Biden administration came out and said, ‘Well, the revenue replacement works differently,’” Ritter said. “So it will be a little fluid, just like the budget process.”
The bill would bring some clarity to one point of tension between lawmakers and the executive branch throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Ritter said lawmakers would be meeting with the governor’s administration on Thursday to continue reviewing another – Lamont’s executive orders.
He said some orders were larger than others, and that he and Rojas had discussed the merits of an early order that relaxed regulations on producing hand sanitizer when there was a shortage of it.
“It’s not going to be something that just switches on or off, but I think what our goal is to do, is to really limit as much as possible those things that the governor needs to do by executive order, and codify, or just let lapse, the vast majority of them,” Ritter said.
Rojas said lawmakers need to consider questions like what impact there could be on FEMA reimbursements if Connecticut ends their public health crisis designation too soon.