HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont welcomed state lawmakers back to the Capitol with a pep talk on Wednesday, touting an improved economy, a more stable state budget and an uptick in economic development.
During his second State of the State Address, the former businessman quoted a succession of recent accolades from Wall Street and bond rating agencies, some of which recently upgraded their fiscal outlooks for Connecticut for the first time in 18 years from neutral to positive.
“A year ago, I promised we would work together to ensure Connecticut's future would no longer be defined by fiscal crisis,” the Democrat told members of the Democratic-controlled General Assembly on opening day of the new three-month, legislative session. He noted how the state now has a record-high budget reserve fund of more than $2.5 billion to weather a future economic storm and various companies have announced expansion plans.
“All right, Connecticut, we've got our mojo back," he said, later encouraging lawmakers to stop “bad-mouthing” Connecticut. “This is an amazing state," he said. “The rest of the country is looking at our state in a new light, and so should its leaders."
While Democrats like Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney of New Haven said Lamont hit the right tone in his midday address, agreeing the state has “turned a corner" financially, minority Republicans accused the governor of ignoring reality and targeting his comments at GOP lawmakers.
“What people want in this state is honesty. They want us to tell them what's going on and unfortunately a lot of that is not positive,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby. “But they want to know what's going on, whether it's good or it's bad and they want to know how we're going to fix it.”
The nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates the state's main spending account, the general fund, will have a $183.8 million surplus next fiscal year, which is slightly higher than the budgeted $166.2 million surplus. Also, the state's budget reserve account is projected to grow to $3 billion by fiscal year 2021, a record high.
But that doesn't mean Connecticut's financial challenges are over.
This year's general fund has a nearly $30 million projected deficit, due mostly to tax refunds and state agency shortfalls. And the Office of Fiscal Analysis is also projecting general fund deficits in future fiscal years: $757 million in fiscal year 2022, $1.2 billion in 2023 and $917 million in 2024.
“Not only does he have rose-colored glasses on, he doesn't want anybody to be critical of all the bad policies that they put forward,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven. “I mean, that's like telling a patient to go see a doctor and say, 'but don't tell them what hurts.' That just doesn't work. We're legislators. We're supposed to point out things that are not going in the right direction."
Because this is a short, three-month session, Lamont on Wednesday unveiled changes to a $22 billion tax-and-spending plan approved last year for the fiscal year that begins July 1. It calls for a 0.6% spending increase. Unlike last year's proposal, Lamont's revised plan includes limited tax changes.
For example, one of the biggest changes is a proposed 50% wholesale tax on all e-cigarette liquid. There's also a proposed new fee for individuals who choose to pay for state services with a credit card. Lamont's budget proposal eliminates $50 million in planned state fee increases and maintains state aid to cities or towns.
During his address, Lamont continued his pitch for truck-only tolls to help pay for transportation improvements. He's also calling for a ban of flavored vaping products, including menthol; $1.5 million for Planned Parenthood and other family planning centers; a new regulatory framework for legalized recreational marijuana use by July 1, 2022, which is in conjunction with efforts in neighboring states; and a “responsible sports betting platform” that is “fair” to the state's two federally recognized Indian tribes with casinos in southeastern Connecticut.
There's also additional funding for mosquito management; funding for approximately 170 new state troopers; funding for a new election informational technology position in the Secretary of the State's office; funding to test so-called “forever chemicals” in water and sediment; online lottery games to help pay for a debt-free community college program; and funding to reduce the cost of phone calls for inmates.
The legislature has struggled for months trying to pass a transportation plan that includes tolls of some sort. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said a vote could now be held next week, but acknowledged “things are always subject to change."
Connecticut lawmakers were greeted Wednesday by protesters, including tolling opponents. Hundreds of vaccination skeptics also rallied outside the state Capitol, urging legislators to block any efforts to repeal the state's religious exemption from certain vaccines for public school students. Other groups were also hoping to catch the attention of legislators, including opponents of a proposed natural gas plant in Killingly, proponents of marijuana legalization and service plaza workers, security officers and building cleaners seeking passage of various labor-related bills.