Connecticut House Speaker Matt Ritter is coming off – what leaders of both parties say – was one of the state’s most important legislative sessions in recent history in relative bipartisan fashion. With a significant boost of federal spending, legislators approved a $51.1 billion 2-year budget last month, an income tax cut, a massive educational omnibus package, with a projected $630 million surplus at the end of FY 2023.
The 40-year-old Ritter, a legislator representing Hartford since 2010 and House Speaker since January 2021, told CT Examiner that he’s not sitting on his laurels.
If anything, Ritter – the son of former House Speaker Thomas Ritter who served in that role from 1993-1999 – said there were many areas where he wanted more from the budget and was disappointed, and wished, in some cases, there was just more time.
Called a consensus builder by members of both parties, Ritter said he’s proud of the budget which, he said, benefitted most residents in the state as “we had the largest tax decrease in state history, or the second largest, depending on how you want to count it.”
Ritter also expressed dismay on several fronts, saying that he’s committed next session to discussing additional reforms for childhood mental health, and to addressing the state’s trash dilemma over where in-state to send Hartford’s bulk garbage – something he calls his biggest disappointment. He said he also wants to revisit the idea of providing more funding to nonprofits and education.
In a wide-ranging 40-minute interview with CT Examiner in his office at the Capitol this past week, Ritter also discussed his priorities for 2024; his father’s influence; and his political aspirations beyond Speaker.
Ritter’s name has been bandied about in political circles as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2026, as many believe Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont will not seek a third term.
Ritter said he’s keeping all options on the table, but said he’s happy with his current job.
“I mean, look, I don’t [shut the door] on any opportunities in the future,” Ritter said. “I think I have the best job in state government, as I get the ability to be in every room and help make every decision. I also have a bit of a normal life compared to what it might be like to be a little higher, like down the hall [as governor].”
Ritter said that, in politics, three years is an eternity and that anything can happen, and usually does.
“A lot can happen in politics,” he said. “You’ve got some 19-year-olds and 25-year-olds up here and even 45-years-olds; they have their whole life mapped out, but they forget to do a good job where they are. So, I just let tomorrow come, and just try to do a good job where I am today.”
A Hartford resident, Ritter said he also has no intention of endorsing any of the seven Democrats seeking to replace Mayor Luke Bronin. “I’m friends with all four of the leading Democratic candidates. There are a lot of connections, so I will just let the voters pick as they are all good people,” he said.
Ritter also said the 2023-24 budget looked nothing like the 2010-2011 budget, the budget he worked on his first year as a legislator.
“We have a budget surplus and a full Rainy Day fund,” Ritter said. “Yeah, to say that it is night and day from where we were when I was elected in 2010 is the largest understatement in the world. It feels good when you walk around both Hartford and Connecticut and you see people and they’ll say to you ‘yeah, we’re just really glad that the roller coaster ride is over.’’’
“2017 was the start of it,” said Ritter, pointing to the year the state’s bipartisan budget guardrails were established, as key to what he sees as a fiscal turnaround for Connecticut.
The guardrails capped how much the state could increase its budget, limited the percentage of revenue the state could spend, and required the state to put aside additional revenue in excess of $3.15 billion into a so-called Rainy Day fund.
In February 2023, against the urging of progressive members of his caucus, the legislature voted to keep those guardrails in place.
“I think, a little bit of it, I don’t say luck is the right word but, I think, Connecticut has found a lot of high earners both staying in Connecticut and moving to Connecticut,” Ritter said. “I think part of that was caused by COVID-19 and sort of the exodus from New York City and other places. And, I think, as New York and New Jersey have raised their income tax rates very high, the Connecticut discount is a real thing again and people now can work and live in Litchfield County or Fairfield County and commute only a few days a week. I think there has been a convergence of events, coupled with good fiscal discipline by the legislature and the governor, who has bought into it; it’s been a good thing.”
The state income tax bracket for New Yorkers ranges from 4 to 10.9 percent, and is 1.4 percent to 10.75 percent for those living in New Jersey. Connecticut’s upper income bracket has a tax rate of 6.99 percent.
Ritter said he’s mindful of the complaints in some corners, including many progressive members of his party, who worry that policies aimed at the poor and working people are being overlooked.
“I’m mindful, you know, of the folks who want to make sure that we are not shortchanging higher education or local education or, you know, providing relief for the most vulnerable,” Ritter said. “We will continue to work on stuff like that.”
Ritter said he personally wants to see support for paraprofessionals in the coming short session in 2024, and he wants to better address the issue of waiting lists for services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“I also need to touch on paraeducators; which has become sort of a big issue for me,” Ritter said. “We did do something in the budget to the tune of $5 million to look at some health care options for them, but they are grossly underpaid. I really would like to highlight that [next session.]”
He noted that both of his children, as he did, attended Hartford’s Webster Elementary School and that paraeducators were a big part of their education.
“I can tell you that, having been in those classrooms, particularly the younger classrooms, paraeducators played a pivotal role, as they do in all elementary schools across the state,” Ritter said.
Ritter said legislators had just begun to tackle the challenge of long waitlists for services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “There’s a wait for some parents – who either might pass away or can’t afford to put them somewhere – when their kids age out of services. The state has a waiting list for these families, to place them in some sort of permanent supportive housing. But, that wait is long. It could take years and, while we did put $30 million into it, we need to revisit that.”
Both House Republican Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford and House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said Ritter listens to all parties and tries to build a consensus.
“He approaches some of the issues at the macro level, which is fairly necessary sometimes when you are in a leadership position,” Rojas told CT Examiner this past week. “I tend to get stuck in a lot of the weeds and the nuances of policy, which are important, but you can’t get stuck there. He does a really good job of bringing everybody up to that macro level so we can build that consensus and not get kind of caught up in the weeds.”
Candelora said Ritter is “always willing to listen to your perspectives and ideas, and I think it makes for better legislation.”
Candelora said it hasn’t always been that way.
“I remember when I first came in [to the legislature] and if you weren’t willing to vote for a bill, that was sort of a non-starter and you wouldn’t have a voice, a say, in the process of that bill,” Candelora said. “His [Ritter’s] biggest strength is probably coming to consensus, you know, bringing people into a room and creating a deal to get a deal passed.”
Candelora and Rojas both said they would speak pretty much daily to Ritter during session, but also communicate with him when legislators are not in session.
“Yeah, we talk every now and then [out of session],” Candelora said. “We both have kids and we have some common interests, especially in sports. A lot of our conversations are about how our sports teams are doing.”
Ritter said he has been around politics his whole life because of the work of his father and that he met many people, including former Hartford Mayor Mike Peters through his father, and they later became friends.
Ritter said that one thing his father told him is a lesson he takes with him to the current day.
“One of his biggest lessons was not only for politics, but for life too,” Ritter said. “He said don’t be so opinionated that you can’t listen to what somebody has to say. Listen for your turn to speak, and you’ll learn.”
Ritter said his father continues to send him articles from the New York Times and Boston Globe that he thinks might interest him. “I talk to him every day, but far less about politics than you might think. He does give me advice, but I think he’s careful about it. He understands the demands of the job.”