In a press conference in Hartford on Tuesday morning, Republican lawmakers announced an alternative to the Governor’s proposal to spend the nearly $2.8 billion that Connecticut will receive from the federal government.
State Rep. Michael France, R-Ledyard, said the Republicans want to focus on one-time investments rather than programs that will require continued funding after the federal money runs out.
“We saw too much of paying for recurring expenses, which creates too much of a cliff,” France said of the Governor’s plan.
The Republicans proposed infrastructure investments, including $15 million for domestic violence shelters and homeless centers, $5 million for bikeways and sidewalks, $50 million for farmland and open space preservation, $50 million for senior centers and libraries, $40 million for municipal parks and recreation and $100 million for the state’s Special Transportation Fund.
The majority of these priorities would take the form of grants to municipalities, and some would require a partial local match.
Asked about the proposal, State Rep. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said she didn’t believe the American Rescue Plan dollars should be put toward infrastructure, saying that there are other funding sources, such as bonding, that can be used for those projects.
Osten said Appropriations would be presenting its own proposal for the federal funds on Friday. She said that all three plans are similar, but that the committee’s priorities would include greater funding for operating nursing homes.
According to Osten, the committee will propose $105 million for nursing homes to cover everyday costs, including salaries and operating expenses.
The Republican plan also includes additional funding for nursing homes — their plan increases the governor’s allocation for nursing homes from $20 million to $40 million in the federal Capital Projects Fund. But this money would be directed toward infrastructure rather than programming costs.
State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said that the nursing homes could use the funds for projects like upgrading HVAC systems, updating technology in resident’s rooms or creating more single rooms. The Republicans also proposed $35.5 million for infrastructure updates for nonprofits.
“You’re looking at something that will have decades of benefits for a one-time expense,” said France.
Colleges, childcare and mental health
The Republican plan reduces the Governor’s proposed support for higher education — including spending on financial aid, scholarships and increasing student retention — by a total of $74 million. The plan would also cut support for criminal justice programs from $10 million to $5 million over two years.
France told CT Examiner that some of the proposed cuts were to avoid “double funding” by the legislature.
For example, France said that the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system is already fully funded in the state budget. Criminal justice programs, he said, are already receiving a 25 to 50 percent increase in the state budget.
France and Cheeseman warned that adding money to need-based scholarships would put students in a position after two years of then losing financial support.
The $74 million includes the elimination of a proposed $24 million over three years for the PACT program, which gives students access to free community college. Cheeseman said that money collected from taxing the iLottery had already been earmarked to support the program.
Osten said that community colleges will be part of the committee’s plan for the federal funds.
“We consider the community colleges extremely important. We have a number of people who are out of jobs,” she said.
Another significant difference between spending priorities is broadband.
While Lamont’s plan sets aside $39.5 million for broadband expansion and mapping in the Capital Projects Fund, the Republicans reduced that to $7.5 million. State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said Republicans want to use money from the federal Emergency Broadband Benefits program, a $3.2 billion program that gives monthly discounts on broadband to low-income individuals.
Other programs would receive added funding in the Republican plan, including funding Care4Kids, a state childcare subsidy program, for an additional year.
“If you’re going back to school, getting a degree, very often those are two year programs,” Cheeseman said during the press conference.
More funding for suicide prevention is also included, particularly for veterans and for children in grades K-12.
“I know my superintendent has said he has never had a higher referral for mental health issues,” Cheeseman said. “We don’t want this to go unaddressed.”
France said Republican leaders believe that addressing a rise in mental health issues — one result of the prolonged isolation during the pandemic — would be a short-term cost for the state.
“Ideally you work through the issue, come to terms with it and the issue will taper off,” he said.
Small business, tourism and unemployment
The governor and Republicans agree on directing $57.5 million in aid to businesses.
“Small businesses were inordinately hit across the board by the pandemic,” said Cheeseman. “We felt anything we could do to help in that recovery — again because this is a recovery, this is not to support them forever and ever.”
Republican leaders said that a further step needs to be taken to support businesses to lessen the costs they would face as a result of the state’s overextended Economic Unemployment Trust Fund.
Connecticut has borrowed nearly $800 million from the federal government to support the fund since the start of the pandemic. Businesses are responsible for paying the deficit, with interest, through an unemployment tax.
The Republican plan would increase the amount federal aid — from $50 million to $350 million — directed toward reimbursing the fund
Osten said that $350 million is a number lawmakers have discussed in the Appropriations Committee as well, and she agreed that the unemployment trust fund needed to be addressed.
But Osten said she supports greater funding for tourism. The Republican plan budget would decrease the governor’s proposed $30 million for tourism in 2022 to $15 million.
“I think statewide marketing is key in our recovery in the tourism and housing industry,” said Osten.
The proposals also differ on the amount of federal funding that would be used to shore up the state budget, with the Republicans proposing the least and the Appropriations Committee the most, according to Osten. Lamont’s proposal — $1.75 billion — falls in the middle.
The Appropriations Committee will release their own proposal for spending the federal funds on Friday.