State budget approved after tense exchange between Democrats

Gov. Ned Lamont reached a budget deal with majority Democrats in the legislature on Friday, just days before the June 9 adjournment of the General Assembly.

Gov. Ned Lamont reached a budget deal with majority Democrats in the legislature on Friday, just days before the June 9 adjournment of the General Assembly.

Jessica Hill / Associated Press

HARTFORD — Tempers in the State Capitol flared on Wednesday when the veteran chairman of the General Assembly’s tax-writing committee charged that the elimination of his proposed taxes on the wealthy in the state budget was like “a knee on the neck of the Black community and other under-served communities.”

Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, who was first elected to the legislature in 1986, criticized what he called a “status quo” budget. The normally placid lawmaker fired his blast at the start of a five-and-a-half-hour floor debate, which ended with a bipartisan 31-4 vote, with support from eight Republicans, by dinnertime.

Gov. Ned Lamont applauded the vote but snapped back at Fonfara, defending the large amounts of federal pandemic relief that will flow into the cities when the two-year, $46.4 billion budget kicks in on July 1.

“Somebody’s who’s been in this building for 30 years talking to someone who’s been in this building for 30 months trying to make a difference for this state, I take exception to those comments,” Lamont told reporters outside the Capitol.

The tense exchange evoked interlocking spats that defined this legislative session, between moderate and liberal Democrats on taxes, health reform, environmental issues, legalizing marijuana and criminal justice. But it was the exception on Wednesday, the final day of the 2021 session, as the massive taxing and spending plan, often a bloody battleground, passed with relative ease.

While the budget does not include the sweeping reforms that liberal Demcorats wanted, it does include provisions to help the middle class and working poor.

Fonfara’s bitterness was directed at the deletion last week of a proposed hike in the income taxes for the state’s wealthiest, plus a surcharge on the state’s tax on investment income, both of which Lamont insisted come out of a budget. The two taxes would have raised $700 million a year on people making more than $500,000 a year as individuals or $1 million as joint filers.

Fonfara and other Democrats wanted to funnel that money into a separate fund to spend on distressed cities.

The plan failed as Lamont panned it, saying there was no need to raise taxes due to the $2.8 billion from the federal pandemic stimulus and the state’s rainy day fund, overflowing with taxes from stock market gains.

“The governor is a Democrat and I think it’s time to back up that designation, that moniker if you will, with substance,” Fonfara said during an April 23 press conference of Recovery for All CT.

Lamont said federal American Rescue Act funding will be combined with state funding for a variety of urban-related programming, as well as summer and early learning programs.

The state’s Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor will increase from 23 percent of the federal income tax to its highest rate 30.5 percent, resulting in an additional $40 million in income to nearly 195,000 Connecticut households.

More than $525 million in added funding is going to Connecticut’s cities and towns over the next two years. New Haven, for example, will receive about $50 million more in state funding than last fiscal year, in addition to about $115 million in federal aid.

Another $29 million will be spent over the next two years to fully implement debt-free community. The budget also includes funding to support wage increases for long-term care workers, who threatened large-scale strikes if they didn’t receive better pay and benefits.

During the Senate debate, both Democrats and Republicans highlighted the budget as a reflection of the state’s values going forward.

For Republicans, that meant not raising taxes including on people’s income, digital taxes and commercial property.

“Connecticut families didn’t need more financial burden what they needed was a financial break,” said Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, who voted in favor of the budget.

Ahead of the vote, Kelly encouraged his members to reflect on whether the budget “works for the people in their district” and “vote accordingly.”

Although the budget itself doesn’t raise taxes, Democrats this week pushed through a highway use tax on heavy trucks, proposed by Lamont. That tax is estimated to raise $90 million a year for transportation improvements, though the trucking industry said it will fail because out-of-state shippers will not pay up.

Despite some concerns about the budget — the Republicans offered a amendment to divert $415 million instead of $155 million into the state’s unemployment trust fund, which failed — Kelly said he “wouldn’t want to see the perfect become the enemy of the good.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, had pushed for the higher taxes on the rich. But he said the budget was reason to celebrate and reflected “the fact that Connecticut has an obligation to help people who are in need, who are struggling.”

“This budget deserves bipartisan support because it meets the needs of the time,” Looney said.

Lamont, calling the budget “transformative” said it “makes a big difference in people’s lives, especially the lives of people who have been hardest hit by the pandemic, especially for the lives of Black and brown people, the likes of which hasn’t been done in 30 years.”

In a statement after the early evening vote, Lamont praised lawmakers.

“We agreed across party lines that now is the time to ensure thousands of families have access to affordable childcare, the expansion of access to free and affordable healthcare will provide security to households, and investments in our future through workforce development will make our state stronger,” the governor said. “The investments in equity will lift up our state for generations to come.”