Some Democratic state legislators questioned Thursday whether Gov. Ned Lamont's newly proposed two-year $46 billion budget does enough to address longstanding racial inequities in Connecticut that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The criticism comes a day after the Democrat said his plan attempts to help make “significant progress towards racial justice and equity” in Connecticut, noting there's a major focus on education, housing, workforce development, health care, and criminal justice reform investments.
State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said what he saw in Lamont's budget proposal is not equity.
“Equity requires us to do things in a way that are not equal across the board. It requires us to focus on things. It requires revenue, quite frankly,” said Winfield during a briefing Thursday with Lamont’s budget director.
Winfield and other Senate Democrats proposed a wide-ranging agenda last summer following the death of George Floyd and other Black people that called for greater state investment in affordable housing, economic development in cities, minority-owned businesses, community health care providers and local education, among other things, to address long-standing inequity.
Melissa McCaw, Lamont’s budget chief and the first Black woman to hold the position of secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, assured lawmakers that the governor’s budget is a “starting point for discussion” about what equity should look like in the final agreed-upon state budget. However, she argued that equity is “baked throughout” Lamont's budget proposal.
“There are many of you that have differing views or other ways you’d like to see that achieved,” she said. “It is not missing from this budget. It might not be in the form that you’d like it to see. And that’s why we have a legislative process.”
State Sen. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, said he was “embarrassed” by Lamont's marijuana legalization proposal and predicted, as it's currently written, it will face challenges in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.
Under Lamont’s plan, a new Cannabis Equity Commission would be created to help implement the new system and ensure that the people and places most affected by past criminal marijuana laws would benefit from that legal market.
It would also automatically erase possession convictions prior to Oct. 1, 2015, and by petition in an effort to help address “significant injustices for many residents, especially people in black and brown communities,” according to a budget document.
“It’s going to be very difficult to get this piece of legislation passed because when I talk about equity, I’m not just talking about expunging records, but I’m talking about economic equity,” McCrory said. “And that has not been discussed.”
While he acknowledged it's just the “beginning point” of discussions, McCrory made it clear he would not accept a “one-sided” view of whether a bill is equitable and predicted there will be “uncomfortable conversations” this session about racial fairness.
McCrory other Democratic lawmakers, including members of the General Assembly's Connecticut Progressive Caucus, have already proposed their own legalization bill that would, among other things, provide state grants to help train people with marijuana-related criminal records to participate in the new lawful industry and its secondary industries.
McCaw noted that Lamont's budget also includes an additional funding for many cities, including $32 million for Hartford. Also, nearly $300 million in capital spending for affordable housing, as well as more funding for economic development and other projects, could be directed to economically distressed communities.
“Look, I’m not going to sit here as an OPM secretary and the first African American OPM secretary and take shots that the black woman did not invest in equity.” she said. “This is about a frank discussion ... as to what we want equity to look like in the state of Connecticut. It’s not an ending point. It’s a starting point.”