HARTFORD – Bipartisan cooperation is the “Connecticut difference” that has brought the state from a fiscal crisis to solid financial footing during his term, Gov. Ned Lamont declared to the General Assembly in his State of the State address Wednesday.
But with elections looming in November for the governor and state lawmakers, Republican leaders were quick to draw a line – declaring Lamont’s optimistic proposals to revise the state budget as irresponsible and “typical election year politics.”
Lamont, appearing before lawmakers in-person after delivering his budget address in a pre-recorded video last year, proposed a $24 billion budget – including a 2.5 percent, or $538 million, increase in general fund spending over what lawmakers approved in the biennial budget last year.
Lamont touted relief for the middle class mainly in the form of tax credits and lower vehicle property taxes, and spending on education, workforce development, public safety and mental health services.
“Three years ago, we were standing at the edge of a fiscal cliff, facing a $3.7 billion budget deficit, and today we are deciding what taxes to cut or school programs to grow, thanks to our third consecutive year of budget surpluses,” Lamont said.
In a statement, Senate minority leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, and State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, called Lamont’s proposal a “high stakes shell game” that goes around the bipartisan spending caps that have been instrumental in stabilizing the state’s finances in recent years. At the same time, the budget doesn’t provide “immediate tax relief,” they said.
Lamont proposed using $560 million in surplus revenues to displace federal COVID relief funds that lawmakers had used to fill projected holes in the budget last year. State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, said freeing up federal COVID money that lawmakers already appropriated creates a sizeable off-budget account that effectively allows the state to spend above the cap.
“If you’re not including this in your appropriations and planning on the state revenue to pay for it, then what do you do when that money is not there?” Cheeseman questioned. “We have seen issues in the past where we set up spending programs on very worthy things, and when the revenue goes away, we have to cut them.”
Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw said federal COVID aid from the American Rescue Plan Act was meant to support Connecticut’s recovery, and the state has “by and large” used it to address areas that have suffered as a result of the pandemic, including: education, student engagement, workforce development, behavioral health, and supporting businesses.
“We really looked at areas where there are opportunities to invest in programs that can be sustained because there are federal match opportunities, or opportunities to become a Medicaid service program,” McCaw said. “And then there are areas where the idea is for this to be a short-term investment until the program is able to get on its feet.”
McCaw said about $200 million in recurring costs are currently being funded by ARPA. Whether the rest of the spending made with those funds needs to continue is an open question, she said.
“Think about mental health. We see the research that these needs have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and we’ll have to reassess in two to three years to determine if that is the case.”
The partisan divide in the room was “palpable” during Lamont’s speech, State Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, said. And party affiliations were tied closely to how well Lamont’s address resonated with state lawmakers.
“As a body, I think we’re all over the place,” Palm said. “It’s a very partisan time.”
The divide was clear throughout Lamont’s speech, as most Republican lawmakers sat and Democratic lawmakers broke out into frequent ovations.
House majority leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, anticipated the divide, asking in his opening remarks that representatives work across the aisle – while acknowledging some would seek out disagreements and partisan debates.
“You know who you are,” he said.
For her part, Palm said she was encouraged to hear Lamont focus on issues she cares strongly about, including gun safety and expanding the use of absentee ballots – something Lamont encouraged making permanent, and Democratic leaders have committed to pushing for at least the 2022 elections. Lamont is an optimist who believes deeply in Connecticut, and that showed in his address, she said.
State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, said he was encouraged by Lamont’s emphasis on police, as the Governor called for cities and towns to put “more cops on the beat,” and to ensure they create a more diverse police force “of, by and for the communities they serve.”
“Especially in New London and southeastern Connecticut, the desire for a lot of residents I know is having police officers that look like their children,” Nolan said.
Lamont – who said Connecticut is “one of the safest states in the country” despite an increase in car thefts and “other street crimes” he linked to COVID – also called for an interstate “special illegal gun unit” to focus on gun traffickers. But prevention is as important as responding to crime, he said, making investments in education, workforce development and mental health crucial.
State Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, said the state needed to increase police presence to enforce current laws rather than add more stringent gun laws.
“If the Governor wants to get serious about curbing violent crime, we don’t need more strict gun laws for citizens, we need to go out and address the fact that people are breaking laws,” Howard said. “I think the lack of enforcing the laws that we have is why guns end up in the wrong hands or why we’re seeing gun violence.”
Howard said that the state police force had become demoralized and disenfranchised during the 18 months of Lamont’s administration and by Democrats in Hartford — a situation that needed to change.
“We need a police force that is accountable and transparent, but also empowered and supported. This police force in the state of Connecticut does not feel empowered or supported by the governor and its administration.”
Nolan said Connecticut needs to be going “all in” for its young people, and those investments are an important part. Getting funding for trade programs would be a benefit to those who aren’t going to college or can’t afford college, he said – adding that he’d like to see Electric Boat and the casinos work with schools in the area on training to develop pipelines to the region’s major employers.
Expanding confidential counseling – something Lamont said students at Enfield High School raised as one of their top priorities – would be important in schools, Howard said, but it would also be “huge” for those incarcerated at the Manson Youth Institution if they didn’t have to wait two to three days to see a counselor.
Cheeseman said she was supportive of Lamont’s proposal to restore eligibility for the property tax credit to all adults within the income limits, instead of just to those 65 and older, and increasing the credit from $200 to $300. Though she said she proposed restoring the full $500 amount of the credit last year.
“I’m pleased to see the Governor recognizing the need for some property tax reform,” Cheeseman said.
Cheeseman said she was not sure yet whether she would support Lamont’s proposal to cut the cap on local vehicle taxes from 45 mills to 29 mills, because she needed to look more closely to see how it would impact municipalities.
McCaw said the change would affect car owners in 103 towns where the mill rate is currently higher than 29, and would cost the state $160 million because it reimburses municipalities for the revenue they lost because of the cap.