Continued COVID-19 testing, expanded access to broadband internet service, “premium pay" for front line state employees and $20 million in nursing home infrastructure improvements are just a handful of the initiatives Gov. Ned Lamont wants to pay for using Connecticut's share of federal pandemic relief funds.
The wide-ranging package, forwarded Monday to the top two leaders of the General Assembly, represents the Democratic governor's plan for how the state emerges from the pandemic while addressing some long-standing issues, said Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw.
“Governor Lamont’s vision for this significant infusion of resources in the state of Connecticut focuses on making a transformative, equitable and healthy recovery for our state,” she said. That vision, she added, includes defeating COVID-19, “investing in our future,” making the state more affordable, modernizing state government and kickstarting “economic growth that works for all” — one of numerous references to equity in the plan.
Lamont's administration first released highlights of the plan last week.
State lawmakers, who voted unanimously last month for a bill requiring Lamont to provide his recommendations to the General Assembly and allow legislators to approve or modify the plan, will now look through the proposal. At the same time, they'll be trying to reach a new two-year budget agreement that Lamont will sign.
“It's a great start, but there's a reason we passed that bill,” said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, “which is to make sure the legislature has a role going forward.”
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said policymakers have an opportunity to use the historic federal funds to “transform our state” and “set a new course for growing jobs and giving people opportunity." But he cautioned that Connecticut should not rely on the funding in the future.
The governor said some parts of the plan, including money for free summer camps and early child care providers are time sensitive, but expressed confidence that an agreement can be reached quickly.
“The sooner, the better,” he said.
Connecticut is receiving about $2.6 billion from the $1.9 trillion federal COVID relief bill signed last month, known as the American Rescue Plan, through 2024. While the state has not received official guidance from the U.S Department of Treasury on how the money can be spent, McCaw said the administration understands it can be used to address state expenses related to responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency and the negative consequences of the pandemic on everything from small businesses to government services. The state, she said, is also allowed to spend the money on water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
Lamont has already proposed spending $1.7 billion of the funds to make up for lost state revenue and balance the next two-year state budget. Ritter noted that figure could change later this week, when state officials receive updated revenue estimates.
Meanwhile, the state is also receiving $145 million in capital project funding and $1.6 billion that will go to cities and towns.
AARP of Connecticut was one of various groups that made spending suggestions to the Lamont administration. Nora Duncan, the organization's Connecticut director, said she is pleased to see the plan includes funding to provide additional respite services for family caregivers and another round of incentive pay for nursing home staff.
“We would have liked to see more attention paid to home and community based services, but the stage is now well set for those conversations moving forward,” she said in a statement.
States around the country are in different stages of determining how to spend these massive infusions of federal money.
In Massachusetts, lawmakers have decided to first work on the regular state budget, while the governor of Louisiana has discussed priorities to help the tourism industry, refill the state's unemployment trust fund and other one-time items, but no specific plan has been decided. Ohio state legislators are close to finalizing $2 billion in federal aid to schools, businesses and renters.
Lamont's plan includes some surprises, such as $10 million over two years to fund a “time-limited, transformative contraceptive access initiative.” There's also one-time funding to addresses some long-standing issues, including the need for 24-hour mobile psychiatric crisis units in the state and other mental health services.
Other proposals include funding for community gun violence reduction efforts; legal representation for people facing eviction; 100 new community health workers who will work with 3,000 high-risk families and children; free admission this summer to museums and venues across the state for residents 18 years and younger, including the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford and the aquariums in Mystic and Norwalk; energy efficiency upgrades for affordable housing complexes; free summer preschool and kindergarten readiness programs; summer youth employment and assistance to the deaf community.
In other coronavirus related news:
Connecticut is teaming with restaurants to offer an incentive for state residents to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Lamont said that between May 19-31 hundreds, if not thousands, of participating establishments will offer a free drink to anyone showing proof of vaccination. The governor also said there is no longer a need to make reservations to get the vaccine. He said the state has more than 50 locations offering walk-up vaccinations. People also will now be told which locations are providing which brand of vaccine so consumers can choose between the newly re-instated Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine or the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna shots.
Associated Press writer Pat Eaton-Robb contributed to this report.