HARTFORD – Asked for reaction to Gov. Ned Lamont’s State of the State address, Republican and Democratic lawmakers told CT Examiner that, for the most part, the speech touched all the relevant bases — childcare, K to 12 education, housing, infrastructure and health insurance — but Republican lawmakers also said the speech weighed too heavily on government overreach into the lives of Connecticut residents.
CT Examiner spoke at length late Wednesday and Thursday morning to six lawmakers: State Rep. Jennifer Leeper, D-Fairfield and State Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, D-Avon, State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-Niantic, State Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook, State Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, and State Rep. Gale Mastofrancesco, R-Wolcott.
Each was asked what they thought about the governor’s speech and whether or not he was moving the state in the right direction.
In his State of the State, Lamont outlined changes he’d like in the second year of the two-year $51.1 billion budget passed last year, including significant additional spending on mental health.
Carney gave the governor’s speech a “B”, telling CT Examiner he liked Lamont’s position on maintaining fiscal guardrails.
“He stayed firm on the fiscal guardrails and I appreciated that,” Carney said. “I do think the governor has a good concept of the type of Connecticut that people want to see, with kids staying here and businesses thriving. I think he has done a better job with that than his predecessor [Dannel Malloy]. I think he does things from outside the gold dome, which some people up there don’t.”
Cheeseman, the ranking member of Finance, Revenue, and Bonding, called the address “a good speech. I don’t know if he was seeking to inspire and, I’m sure, there are people who were disappointed, obviously, because we’ve heard the calls for significantly increased funding for nonprofit providers and significant increases for funding for UConn and the community colleges. On the other hand, we have abided by the fiscal guardrails: There is $100 million every year that’s available to fund these programs.”
Cheeseman said many of her colleagues – both Democrats and Republicans – appreciated a number of ideas raised by the governor on Wednesday.
“Not only do I like the guardrails, but I also like the special transportation fund surplus cap,” Cheeseman said. “Once the special transportation fund surplus reaches a certain point, like a Rainy Day Fund, you then use that money to pay down long-term debt obligations. I also am very excited about the creation of another physician and nursing home ombudsman, whose job it will be to look at nursing homes and assisted living centers. I have a particular interest in that as my dad is in assisted living and having someone on the state level to reach out to and help family members with issues at those nursing homes and assisted living centers is a great idea.”
Kavros DeGraw told CT Examiner Wednesday that Lamont’s speech delivered the goods.
“I definitely appreciated him focusing on the fact that people are struggling to find housing,” Kavros DeGraw said. “I was also grateful to hear that he was talking about some of the things that are happening around homelessness.”
Kavros DeGraw, who has been one of the loudest voices in the state legislature in advocating for a comprehensive plan to address the state’s homeless population, noted that the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness is asking for an additional $20 million for services.
“They are looking for more consistent funding. We have to make sure that we keep the cold weather shelters open,” she said. Even though the governor’s recommended budget does not include that money, Kavros DeGraw said: “The fact that it came up in the speech gave me hope.”
Both Kavros DeGraw and Leeper applauded the governor’s remarks and his call for more funding for K-12 education, an additional $350 million for mental health and an additional $90 million for childcare.
Sampson and Mastofrancesco, however, told CT Examiner that the governor’s speech relied too much on government support for programs, and even said the governor was misleading in his address when it came to the state’s finances.
“He attempts to paint a picture of our budget situation in Connecticut as a rosy one,” Sampson said. “I just don’t see it that way. If we are in a strong position this is simply because we have been bailed out by the federal government printing money. That creates a boatload of other problems, like massive inflation and a lack of certainty about, you know, what’s happening overall with the economy nationally.”
Sampson, who was the only state Senator to vote against the biennial budget last June, said the governor’s speech was “about expanding government and creating more spending. You’ve got money being dedicated to Baby Bonds and you have money dedicated to paying for people’s medical debt. My question is, what about the people that actually pay their bills?”
Leeper, on the other hand, told CT Examiner it was the government’s role to help those who have been left behind and have fallen on tough times.
“While we have these robust budgets and surpluses, I think it’s really hard to turn deserving and needy people away from the help they require. It’s important to help the people that need help. That’s the role of government,” Leeper said.
Leeper said she’s proud of the governor’s remarks, which, she said, show that Connecticut cares about its residents and attempts to address the most pressing issues with not only funding, but also compassion.
“I think it’s important – and the governor spoke on this – that we have more people covered by health insurance than ever before,” Leeper said. Still, she said, “We do need to raise the reimbursement rates for our medical providers to ensure that even people who are covered can access the medical professionals they need.”
Mastofrancesco told CT Examiner the governor and the government were sending the wrong message when it comes to issues like the Baby Bonds. As she sees it, the program does the opposite of what it is designed to do. It’s a pattern, Mastofrancesco said, she sees politicians make when it comes to the poor.
“We are supposed to be helping people [with the Baby Bonds program] born into poverty,” Mastofrancesco told CT Examiner. “The problem is, when you do that, you are already assuming that people born into poverty are going to be poor forever. We are just assuming that they are not going to be successful in life and, certainly, just by putting that out in there, you are telling them right out of the gate that when you are born you are not going to be successful, and we need to help you. There have been a lot of successful people born into poverty.”
Mastrofrancesco said, for her, what wasn’t in the budget’s address was telling.
“I didn’t hear anything about crime,” she said. “Crime is really pressing on people’s minds. They don’t feel safe and their cars are getting stolen. They need to enforce the laws that we have on the books, and strengthen them and hold people accountable for crime. It was really disappointing that crime was never discussed.”
Kavros DeGraw also said she was disappointed that the second year of the biennial budget does not give additional funding to the Connecticut State College and Universities system.
“I’d like to see funding for that because, I think, when we talk about the backbone of our workers – and where they come from and who they are – it’s our phlebotomists, it’s our EMTs, it’s our dental hygienists,” Kavros DeGraw said. “I mean, these are everyday folks. These are single moms and people that decided to go back to school; you know, the kids that can’t afford UConn anymore.”
Kavros DeGraw said that “as a starting point” she would have liked to have seen at least an additional $50 million, if not more, earmarked for the CSCU system.
In a press release issued late Wednesday, CSCU Chancellor Terrence Cheng also took issue with the governor’s proposal.
“CSCU students aren’t just numbers on a balance sheet,” Cheng wrote. “Our colleges and universities are key economic drivers, helping to meet the state’s needs… Every day from now until midnight on May 8 [the close of session], we will be working closely with the governor’s office, state lawmakers, and key stakeholders to ensure CSCU receives the funding it needs to continue to foster the next generation of teachers, nurses, manufacturers, and corporate leaders.”
Leeper told CT Examiner that she disagreed with $48 million in state funding for magnet schools being reallocated for early childhood programs. That $48 million was part of the $150 million in additional funding for K-12 education approved for the biennial budget last June.
“We have to think more creatively about how we support everybody who needs additional funding,” Leeper said.
And, ConnCAN, whose mission is to improve educational outcomes for Connecticut children, also was critical of the plan.
“Last year, through a bipartisan budget, Connecticut leaders agreed to invest in our future. This year, we must build on that promise to support more children, not fewer,” said ConnCAN Executive Director Steven Hernandez in a statement. “Pitting children against each other for a chance at a quality education is not a solution.”
Cheeseman told CT Examiner that she was disappointed that a child tax credit deduction, something pushed for by many Republicans, wasn’t on the table.
And, Carney said he sees too many mandates being supported by the governor and his administration.
“Take expanding paid sick leave,” Carney said. “I think there needs to be a little more flexibility with some of these mandated programs for very small businesses. It’s not the concept; it’s the mandate part of it. I get worried when, you know, it goes from the large companies and then it makes its way down to someone with a small office.”