HARTFORD — With a bipartisan state budget, an income tax cut, a massive educational spending package and an estimated $630 million surplus, Democratic Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney views 2023 as a landmark year.
But Looney, who is serving his 16th two-year term in the State Senate, is not sitting on his laurels.
The 75-year-old New Haven resident told CT Examiner on Thursday that he’s preparing for the 2024 short session, which begins in early February, in the hopes of approving funding for many projects and initiatives that fell short this year.
On his priority list is funding for early childhood education, nonprofits and homeless initiatives.
“One of the things that I hope we will be able to look at is some additional funding for early childhood education for preschool and day care programs,” said Looney, who was elected president pro tempore in 2015. “I think the challenge from birth to age 5 is in a real crisis in this state. We have too many kids coming into kindergarten unprepared to be there and never really catching up once they are there.”
Looney, who is considered one of the legislature’s more progressive members, also said he will fight to secure more money for “our public higher education system, especially for the community colleges and the Connecticut State University system. I also think we have to do more for other nonprofits who care for frail people in the community, whether it be the elderly or the disabled.”
Looney, who said he plans on running for at least one more term, said there needs to be more services for the homeless.
“They need money to allow for more services, and to provide for more shelters to open up more spaces for people, and also to do more outreach services to people who are chronically homeless, so that they can overcome that problem and be more productive,” he said.
While legislators set the state’s two-year budget during the long session, their main responsibility during the short session is to make adjustments to the adopted budget. It also gives the state Legislature the opportunity to create new laws and adjust old ones, as long as those laws adhere to the requirement that all legislation be related to the budget.
Looney said he was “disappointed” that expanding paid sick time passed the state Senate in 2023 but didn’t get through the House. Paid sick days add to the quality of life, he said, adding that the goal is to provide at least five sick days per year..
“I would like to see virtually everyone eligible for paid sick days, no matter how large or small the employer,” Looney said. “Now, it’s businesses with at least 50 employees [that are eligible]. We want to make those working for smaller entities available for paid sick days.”
Looney praised the House and Senate leadership and Gov. Ned Lamont in approving what both sides called a “historic” budget.
The budget plan reduces the state income tax by lowering the 5 percent rate to 4.5 percent and the 3.0 percent rate to 2 percent for 2024. About 1 million tax filers will benefit from the rate cuts, officials said. The benefits will be capped at $150,000 for single filers and $300,000 for joint filers. Middle- and working-class Connecticut residents should see savings between $300 and $500 in 2024, according to state officials.
The highest marginal tax rate remains at 6.99 percent.
Looney said the state could see millions of dollars in additional revenue if high earners paid a bit more — and it’s something he’ll push for.
“I am hoping we can see a proposal that would at least have an additional surcharge on the capital gains category of revenue for those who are already at the highest level,” he said. “It will be a modest increase compared to what other people pay. There is a tremendous amount of wealth in Connecticut.”
Looney leads the 36-member state Senate, where Democrats hold a two-thirds majority.
Looney, who still practices law and is also an adjunct faculty member in the political science department at Quinnipiac University, said his relationship with senate Republican leadership, primarily Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, is cordial and productive. The two talk frequently during the legislative session, he said.
Both parties will work on consensus on some issues, Looney said, but Democrats owe it to the residents to drive their own agenda.
“We can cooperate and try to get consensus, obviously, but we try to put our majority stamp on as many things as we can because we are the majority party and we have the responsibility to govern. … People made that choice on Election Day and they elected 24 of us,” he said.
On other issues, Looney said Republicans are “short-sighted and too often have their heads in the sand and are denying climate change.”
Looney was referring to a push by several Connecticut Republicans in opposing a mandated shift to electric vehicles. Proposed regulation would set a 2035 deadline for ending sales of new gas-powered vehicles, but not ban them.
“Yes, we need to move systematically toward reducing carbon emissions,” Looney said. ”Gas-powered cars are among the worst polluters. We need to also have more solar power, we need to have more wind power, and we need to have that real conversation on electric vehicles. There is going to be a great deal of reluctance about buying electric cars. I think, in terms of an ideal policy, people would like to have an electric car because they know it’s cleaner. But on the other hand, they might not be ready to do it yet because of the range anxiety [in finding a place to charge] and the fear of inconvenience.”
Looney said he also expects advocates for a medical aid-in-dying bill to again bring the issue to the floor. Looney was noncommittal on whether he’d support such a measure.
Advocates say Connecticut’s version would be fashioned after Oregon’s law, and state that only adults ages 21 or older who are terminally ill with six months or less to live can take a mix of prescribed medications to end their life.
Mentors and influences
Looney said his parents Martin and Mary Looney, both of whom were born in Ireland, had the biggest influence on him as a person and for his interest in politics and government.
“They weren’t actively involved, but they were shrewd and insightful observers of the process,” he said. “They were both growing up in Ireland at the time of Ireland’s rebellion against England, so they were very much aware of growing up in a really fraught and dangerous period.”
Looney said he is staunchly and unapologetically pro-union, especially after seeing firsthand what his father went through.
“He was active in the 1950s, when I was a child, in helping to organize a union, Local 609 of the Machinists,” Looney recalled. “The first time they had a union campaign, it failed. He was one of the workers identified with being with the union and the company tried to break him. He was already in his 50s and they took him off his forklift job, which wasn’t all that stressful, and put him in a job that included unloading heavy freight, hoping that it would either kill him or make him quit. But he stuck it out for a couple of more years.”
Eventually, workers voted to have a union and, Looney said, his father was elected union steward.
Looney considers U.S. Rep. Laura DeLauro, D-Conn, his mentor. She was there during his early days in New Haven politics and continues to give him advice, he said.
“She was my original mentor and why I got into politics,” Looney said.
At one point, Looney worked as a coordinator for then-Democratic New Haven Mayor Frank Logue when DeLauro was his campaign manager.
“She [DeLauro] has energy and passion and drive, and it’s her belief that the government should be the voice of the people who don’t have a voice,” he said.