HARTFORD – Overwhelming votes to pass the state budget this week masked significant tension over lawmakers’ self-imposed budget guardrails – seen by several as the basis of Connecticut’s renewed fiscal health, and by others as an arbitrary barrier to meeting critical needs in the state.
After a lengthy debate on Tuesday afternoon, the Senate passed the budget in a 35-1 vote, with only State Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Cheshire, in opposition. Already passed by the House early Tuesday, the budget will now head to Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk, where he plans to sign into law what he’s called the largest income tax cut in Connecticut history.
The budget guardrails, first established in the 2017-18 fiscal year, cap how much the state can increase its budget, limit the percentage of revenue the state can spend, and require the state to put aside additional revenue in excess of $3.15 billion into a “rainy day fund.” In February, the state Legislature voted to keep those guardrails in place.
But throughout the session, advocates for education, unions representing group home workers, and local nonprofits have continually pushed for a loosening of those restraints, arguing the current limitations do not meet the high level of need across Connecticut, and claiming that the state’s historic surplus justifies breaking the piggy bank.
“On the one hand, the spending cap can be seen as a really prudent guardrail to enforce discipline to prevent excessive spending, and I think that is something that many people have applauded it for,” Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said. “But on the other hand, it can also mean that it is a straitjacket that prevents spending to meet real needs, even at a time when resources are available to meet those needs.”
One of the greatest points of contention for both parties was the lack of funding for nonprofits.
State Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said he was grateful that nonprofit social services were getting long overdue support in the form of a 2.5 percent increase in funding. The nonprofits have been “running on fumes” to provide quality services to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access them, he added.
But the increase falls short of the increases that nonprofits had asked for — 9 percent in 2024 and 7 percent in 2025.
Gian-Carl Casa, president of the CT Nonprofit Alliance, said in a statement that the 2.5 percent increase was insufficient to meet the organizations’ needs, particularly in light of the state’s current $3 billion surplus.
“This budget will hurt residential and outpatient addiction and mental health programs, worsen the workforce crisis, force the closing of programs, and create longer waiting lists,” Casa said. “We’ve warned of this for months. None of this should be a surprise.”
State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said the increase “doesn’t get us away from the fumes,” and that nonprofit workers and other low-paid workers that underpin the state’s social services will continue to struggle.
Winfield referred to the members of Service Employees International Union – representing group home workers – who protested outside of the Capitol building, calling for lawmakers to give them a minimum wage of $25 an hour, affordable health care and funding for retirement.
According to Winfield, thousands of people have been outside the Capitol throughout the session, telling lawmakers that their budget doesn’t work for them.
“My mother was a person who struggled … and she worked herself to the point where she physically couldn’t work anymore, and she couldn’t do the things she needed to do,” he said. “She did that because she had children and like a parent, she’s going to do everything she needed to do.”
“People standing outside this building are doing the same thing, and our answer to them is that we can’t do more, because we have guardrails in place,” Winfield continued. “And I’m trying to figure out what it is we’re protecting, because the numbers built into this are arbitrary.”
But the guardrails have strong bipartisan support from legislative leaders.
The session kicked off with pronouncements from House leaders of both parties that Connecticut’s fiscal health is in a good place because of the restrictions lawmakers agreed to implement to avoid calamity in 2017.
The Senate discussion on Tuesday began with lawmakers reflecting on how well the guardrails have worked for them as well. State Sen. Henri Martin, R-Bristol, said they have been an anchor for lawmakers.
Hwang praised lawmakers for reaffirming and extending the guardrails early in the session, saying it showed they have discipline to live within their means “despite the many temptations of using gimmicks, using methodologies that meet the immediate need.”
But other legislators expressed frustration with the limitations the guardrails had imposed.
“The cap is really holding back, in many areas, a lot of the funding that we would like to do, because we’ve had such a robust revenue in the state of Connecticut this past year,” said State Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, who chairs the legislature’s budget committee, during a Tuesday news conference.
Walker said the budget committee and State Legislature had not anticipated the requests for increases in housing, education and the colleges and universities, and referred to the process as “an educational curve.” But she stopped short of saying she regretted her vote to keep the guardrails.
“I won’t look back,” she said.
Lamont said there was a lot of back and forth regarding the spending cap this session, with “gimmicks” proposed to get around it.
“I’m just asking you to honor the very rules of the road you set for yourself,” the governor said. “There’ll be push and shove coming, that’s what happens every two years. That’s why I’m here.”
Republicans broadly criticized Lamont’s tax cuts for not going far enough at a time when Connecticut residents are paying higher taxes due to inflation. Sampson called the tax cut “baloney,” saying, “If you want to have a tax cut, you have to reduce spending.”
Republicans had requested a $1.5 billion tax cut for the working and middle class; and a few Republicans, including Sampson, criticized the budget for not including a property tax reduction.
Despite criticisms, several Republicans thanked and praised Lamont. Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, admitted the budget isn’t perfect but includes good ideas Republicans fought for, including the “broad-based” income tax cut and increased funding for education.
“I would like to thank our Gov. Ned Lamont for his steadfast adherence and insistence on the fiscal guardrails, and his belief in broad-based, permanent tax relief for working and middle class families,” Kelly said.
The budget also increases education funding by $435 million, including $150 million in additional state funding for school districts and holding harmless the districts scheduled to lose state funding over the next five years, as well as more funding for children with special education needs. The budget includes hourly rate increases of 11 percent in the first year and 6 percent in the second year for child care workers and more funding for the state-subsidized child care program, Care4Kids.
Winfield said he has seen his colleagues feel relief, even celebrate, when they pass a budget. But for him, he said, there’s no celebration because the budget doesn’t address the real needs of people struggling to make a better life for themselves and their children.
“With all due respect to the hard work that people did, we have options that we did not take,” he said.