HARTFORD – Easing the sting of the state’s property tax on residents, addressing inequities in public health and combating juvenile crime with increased intervention lead the agenda of the top Democrat in the State Senate for the legislative session that begins in February.
“There’s no other tax that is felt as acutely as the property tax and we need to find ways to address it,” Sen. Martin Looney said in an interview with CT Examiner, adding that its “regressive” current structure often means the state’s wealthiest residents pay lower effective tax rates than its lowest-income residents.
Looney, who has been a Senator since 1992 and was elected by members as its President Pro Tempore in 2015, says he will push for an increase in the property tax credit residents can receive against their income tax assessment.
The credit had reached $500 some 15 years ago, but has since been whittled down to its current $200 ceiling by legislatures seeking more revenue in down economic times.
Expanding eligibility for the credit, once widely available but now only to seniors over age 65 and taxpayers with dependents, is also on the table.
Another mechanism, he said, would be to pay a bigger share of cities’ and towns’ costs for special education – one of the major expenses in municipal education budgets that are reliant on property taxes.
“These costs are directly reflected in the property tax,” he said, noting that special education can be four times more expensive to offer than traditional curriculum.
Looney also wants to continue to increase so-called PILOT payments designed to aid cities and towns that have a large amount of untaxed property such as that housing government, educational and non-profit organizations.
Another major theme of the session, he said, will be to counter what he describes as “effective racism” in the state public health system stemming from lack of affordable access to it by people of color – a situation he said is being exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.
He said the legislature will rely heavily on the recommendations of the newly-formed Commission on Racial Equity in Public Health, which has declared racism a public health crisis in the state.
The 28-member commission was created by Gov. Ned Lamont last summer and met for the first time last month.
It is required to report on its progress to the legislature and the governor’s budget office every six months, beginning in January.
Looney said he also will ask the state Department of Public Health to begin exploring the development of a program to recruit and retain people of color into the healthcaresss industry.
And the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection will be asked to compile a report and recommendations regarding racial disparities in environmental health, he said, such as air quality in urban areas.
“We’re trying to basically entice the state bureaucracy to address the issues of racial disparity,” Looney said, adding that he wants to hear the agencies’ assessments and recommendations for legislation on the situation by late February.
Regarding the spike in juvenile crime, Looney said that funding for more mental and behavioral health intervention is needed to try to steer young people away from the violence, theft and threats against schools that have seemingly become commonplace in recent months.
Many young people who are committing crimes, he said, are suffering from mental health problems stemming from witnessing or being victims of abuse or trauma or in an environment lacking parental supervision.
“They are severely damaged and impaired and this is manifesting itself into an increasingly complex problem that has to be met by treatment,” he said.
But Looney also claimed the situation is being exaggerated by Republicans who have called for a host of stricter handling and punishment measures to be enacted.
“The Republicans are desperate to create a criminal justice issue to get ahead of,” he said, adding that the party has been largely silent on what he called “the biggest criminal act we’ve seen in a long time” – the Jan. 6 attack on the nation’s Capitol by supporters of former President Donald J. Trump.
“They are trying to, frankly, frighten people in the suburbs,” he said.
And while some Republican leaders have called for the state to explore reopening the 200-bed Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown, Looney said he does not believe that returning to more robust incarceration is an appropriate response to the problem.
The facility was shut in 2018 by then-Gov. Dannel Malloy after its population had dropped to below 100 and much of its staff had been laid off.
“That facility was a huge failure when it was in operation,” Looney said. “I don’t see us revisiting that.”