Democrats Detail Priorities for the Legislative Special Session to Convene on Monday

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The Connecticut legislature will meet in special session on Monday to consider extending the gas tax holiday, free bus service, and added funding for the state energy assistance and pandemic pay.

“These actions can help provide more immediate relief for Connecticut residents as consumers across the country are facing rising prices due to a number of international dynamics and market instability that go far beyond our state,” Gov. Ned Lamont said in a news release Wednesday.

Last week after Eversource and United Illuminating announced massive increases to the cost of electric supply they will pass through to customers, Lamont said he intended to call on the legislature to boost funding for the state’s federally-funded energy assistance program.

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Funding for that program was boosted by pandemic-related federal dollars each of the past two years, with a record-high $140 million in energy assistance available last year. But that assistance expired this year, leaving the state with just $79 million for a program that has seen much more need as heating oil, natural gas and now electric prices have increased dramatically.

Another $20 million in federal funding for heating assistance for Connecticut was included in a temporary spending bill that is funding the federal government through mid-December, but it’s unclear whether any more federal aid is coming as Congress looks to work out a budget deal in the coming weeks.

As of Nov. 5, the state has received 44,193 applications for energy assistance, according to the latest data available. That’s a 15 percent increase from the same time last year – and applications opened a month later this year – raising concerns about the state’s ability to meet the need for heating assistance without more funding.

Connecticut House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, told CT Examiner the legislature will consider using ARPA funds to add about another $35 million to the state energy assistance program, bringing its total funding to near 2021 levels. 

Ritter said the legislature will also allocate $4.5 million to Operation Fuel from a fine the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority imposed on United Illuminating parent company Avangrid after regulators said the company violated state law by trying to garnish customer’s wages despite a moratorium on utility shutoffs in the early days of the COVID pandemic.

Operation Fuel offers energy assistance grants mainly to people who earn between 60 and 80 percent of the state median income — a level that does not qualify for state energy assistance, which is only available to people earning 60 percent or less of state median income – about $76,465 for a family of four.

“That helps the higher income bracket than LIHEAP,” Ritter said.

The idea is that the state would only use the ARPA funds for energy assistance if Congress doesn’t fill the gap with more federal funding, Ritter said.

“We’re hopeful they’ll appropriate additional funding, so we’ll be the last dollars in, and we’ll fill the bucket that needs to be filled to get to that number,” Ritter said. 

Lamont also called on the legislature to extend the gas tax holiday, which has suspended the state’s 25-cent per gallon tax on gasoline since April 1, until Dec. 31. Lamont proposed phasing the gas tax back in by 5 cents a month beginning in January. 

He also proposed extending free public bus service through the end of March, when federal restrictions limit “temporary public transit pilot programs” to no more than 12 months.

Lamont also called for increasing funding from $30 million to $90 million for bonus pay for “essential workers” who worked certain jobs like healthcare, emergency services or grocery stores between March 2020 and May 7, 2022.

Comptroller-elect Sean Scanlon said last week that those payments would amount to about $230 each for workers who earned less than $100,000 a year – instead of the up to $1,000 grants state officials announced earlier this year, according to CT Mirror.

Ritter said the additional funding will come from the general fund surplus for fiscal year 2023, and lawmakers are still working out the details of what it will mean for the program.

“The general feeling is that we’re going to try to give as much as we can,” Ritter said. “We’re going to try to make it progressive in the sense that, the less you make, the more you get, and the more you make, the less you get.”

The General Assembly is scheduled to convene at 10 a.m. Monday.