The Connecticut General Assembly's budget-writing committee approved, along party lines, a proposed two-year $46 billion state spending plan crafted by the majority Democrats who say that it attempts to address many equity issues that came to light during the pandemic and the nation's reckoning on race.
The committee's budget bill is essentially a response to Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont's proposed budget unveiled in February, which also spends roughly $46 billion over two years. However, it includes more money than Lamont's budget for financially struggling nonprofit agencies that provide social services, as well as to local health and school districts, workforce development programs, higher education and other initiatives.
"When we looked at the number of people that are unemployed, when we looked at the number of people that weren’t in school and the number of people that were losing homes, it became very clear that we were at a very, very critical cliff in our communities," said. Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, the committee’s other co-chair, estimated that about 80% of the committee’s budget proposal unveiled Wednesday is the same as what Lamont proposed earlier this year. It will now become the basis for negotiations between legislators and Lamont’s office in the coming weeks on a final two-year budget agreement. The legislative session is scheduled to adjourn on June 9 and the new fiscal year begins on July 1.
Members of the Finance Revenue and Bonding Committee were expected to vote Thursday on the Democrats' separate tax proposal, which will also become part of the upcoming budget talks.
The Democrat's spending bill would increase state spending by 1.8% in the first year of the two-year budget and by 3.7% in the second. Lamont's bill increases spending by 2% in the first year and 3.5% in the second.
Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, the ranking Senate Republican on the committee, said he supports many of the spending initiatives in the Democrats' plan but remains concerned about the overall level of spending, especially given the state's recent budgetary successes. Last month, Moody’s Investor Services upgraded the state’s general obligation bond rating one notch, marking the first credit rating upgrade in two decades. Moody's cited the state’s “significant budgetary reserves and good financial performance through the pandemic.”
"It's almost a relapse of where we were four years ago, or five years ago or six years ago. It's not reflective of our current year spending,” warned Miner, who raised concerns about some “off-budget” spending that was not included in the overall $46 billion figure, as well as a reliance on one-time federal coronavirus aid and surplus funds that could lead to budget challenges in future years.
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, accused the Democrats of using “budgetary gimmicks” to avoid the state's cap on spending.
Democrats said the extraordinary job losses and economic fallout of the pandemic warranted more spending, but noted that their budget proposal does not spend the state's budget reserve fund, which is estimated to end the year with $3.7 billion.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear what programs will ultimately be funded with money from President Biden's recent coronavirus recovery legislation. Lamont must provide top legislative leaders with recommendations for spending the approximately $2.6 billion Connecticut expects to receive from the new American Rescue Plan. The Appropriations Committee will have until May 16 to report their approval or modifications.
Under the Democrats' budget proposal, there's money for specific equity-related initiatives, including $250,000 in each budget year to create a state Commission on Racial Equity in Public Health; more than $360,000 in each year for a new conviction integrity unit — also proposed in Lamont's budget — to open investigations in cases of people who claim to have been wrongfully convicted; and a call to use existing funds to remove the statue of Major John Mason from the state Capitol.
Mason is known for leading a raid in 1637 on a settlement of Pequot Indians, which historians said killed more than 400 men, women and children.
Unlike Lamont's budget, the committee's proposal directs an additional $30 million in both fiscal years 2022 and 2023 to help financially struggling nonprofit social service providers that have contracts with state agencies, as well as $50 million from this year's projected surplus.
The Connecticut Community Nonprofit Alliance urged lawmakers and Lamont to include the funding in any final budget deal. President and CEO Gian Carl Casa called it “a remarkable and historic investment” in a system that touches all 169 cities and towns in Connecticut.