HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut lawmakers closed out a legislative session like no other on Wednesday night, with the state Senate approving a two-year, $46.3 billion state budget that proponents said will help Connecticut in its continued recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic while beginning to address some longstanding inequities in the state.
Legislators wrapped up their work shortly before midnight. In the final moments, the House and Senate chambers were nearly filled with lawmakers - a rare sight this session, given the strict COVID-19 protocols.
As in the House, there was bipartisan support for the budget in the Senate, where the bill passed 31 to 4. Shortly afterward, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont said he will sign it into law, calling it the “most progressive, transformative, and life-changing budget our state has ever seen.” The new fiscal year begins on July 1.
Wednesday's vote marked the culmination of an unusual and challenging legislative session, where the state Capitol was closed to the public due to COVID-19 restrictions and staff and legislators were forced to rely on Zoom meetings to get much of their work done, including committee meetings and public hearings. Besides dealing with the devastating impacts of the pandemic and its continuing challenges, the General Assembly was also under pressure to pass a budget that addresses the state's racial and economic inequities in the light of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“This is a budget, I think, to celebrate,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven. “It is one that puts us in a position to meet the needs of the state of Connecticut. I think it reflects the fact that Connecticut has an obligation to help people who are in need and struggling. Government needs to be a partner and friend.”
While General Assembly was able to pass a new budget before Wednesday's midnight adjournment, a bill legalizing the adult use of cannabis was not going to make it in time. Democratic leaders of the House of Representatives said they would take up that and other bills in a special legislative session. Their decision comes after Republican House members who oppose the legislation were expected to run out the clock by continuing to debate the bill until the legislature's deadline.
“Because we were not allowed to do the business we needed to do today, every item to me is open for consideration in the special session,” said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, acknowledging the list could be expansive. “They should have allowed us to vote. So, that's how it's going to be.”
The special session could happen within the next couple weeks, said Ritter.
Despite their concerns with the marijuana bill, there was some GOP support for the budget deal that Democratic legislative leaders reached with Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont. Twenty-two House and eight Senate Republicans voted for the bill, some lauding it for not increasing taxes, something progressive Democrats had sought early on in the legislative session to address long-standing racial and economic inequities.
“The state of Connecticut is not in a position to begin looking at revenue, especially at a time when families are suffering," said House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, who voted for the bill. “Our economy is trying to recover and we’re not sure where we’re going to be a year from now when the federal dollars start to dissipate and maybe show the real landscape of what our economy looks like.”
The new budget benefits from a massive infusion of federal COVID relief funds, including $2.28 billion over two years from the American Rescue Plan, and an improving state economy that has led to historic tax collections. It boosts funding for local education, nonprofit agencies, nursing homes, college scholarships, health insurance programs, municipal aid, workforce development, group homes, housing, summer camp and learning opportunities for children and expanded day care slots.
Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, however, criticized the level of spending in the budget, saying it “creates the largest state government that this state will have ever had.”
The Senate chairman of the Finance Revenue and Bonding Committee, said he was disappointed the final budget did not include the tax increases that were voted out of the committee, with the goal of raising money for the long-term to address the state's inequities after the federal COVID relief funds run out. Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, argued now is the time to address “the concentration of poverty” in Connecticut and issues such as the lack of home ownership opportunities, capital for businesses and infrastructure and kindergarten readiness.
“We can make those investments and not change the lives of those that were asked to contribute a little bit more,” Fonfara said, who called the budget a “status quo budget" that will lead to “status quo results.”
“It's as though we have our policies, our knee, on the neck of the Black community and other underserved communities of our state,” he said. “We can do better and we must do better.”
Lamont opposed the tax increases included in the Democrats' original revenue package, such as a new “consumption” tax and a capital gains tax on higher income residents, a so-called “mansion tax” and a tax on digital advertising, arguing they could stymie the state's economic recovery. He told reporters he took “exception" to the comments of Fonfara, a veteran state legislator.
“I think this is an incredibly important transformative budget. I think it makes a big difference in people’s lives, especially the lives of people who've been hardest hit by the pandemic, especially in the lives of Black and brown people, the likes of which hasn’t been done for 30 years,” Lamont said. "And I think you’re finally getting it done right now.”
Lamont said he's also pleased that the House and Senate finally passed legislation that generates new revenue for transportation projects. Both chambers late Tuesday approved, along party lines, Lamont’s mileage-based “highway use” fee on tractor-trailers to help shore up the state’s financially troubled transportation fund. Republicans argued the fee is unfair to local trucking companies and will lead to higher prices for consumer, accusing Lamont and the Democrats of being disingenuous when they say no taxes will be raised.