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Connecticut Politics Week in Review: Gov. Ned Lamont pitches his ‘Connecticut Comeback’ budget with no major tax hikes

Hartford Courant logo Hartford Courant 2/13/2021 Russell Blair, Hartford Courant

Gov. Ned Lamont’s new two-year budget expects an infusion of federal aid to avoid tax increases or boosts in spending in the midst of a pandemic that, while trying for the thousands of Connecticut residents who have lost their jobs and those who have been impacted by the coronavirus, has not been as bad of news for the state’s finances as once thought. Rather than a multibillion-dollar deficit, Connecticut is projected to end the current fiscal year on June 30 with a surplus due to surging tax revenue tied to Wall Street gains. To close gaps in the next two years, Lamont is eyeing more federal aid or potentially dipping into the state’s $3 billion-plus rainy day fund.

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The big story

Lamont pitches his ‘Connecticut Comeback’ budget: Delivering his virtual budget address Wednesday under the theme of the “Connecticut Comeback,” Lamont released a plan that avoids major increases in taxes or spending, relying on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief to help close projected deficits of more than $1 billion in each of the next two years. “I’ve always said, we don’t need more taxes, we need more taxpayers, and they are already paying dividends as you can see by our balanced budget,” he said during the speech. New revenue sources in the budget include legal marijuana sales, sports betting and online gambling and a new fee on tractor-trailers. With the influx of federal aid, Lamont’s budget pauses scheduled increases for the state’s education cost-sharing payments that were to be directed to low-performing school districts, a move that angered some lawmakers. But the budget also slightly raises grants for charter school students, includes funding for 100 Open Choice seats for students in Danbury and Norwalk, where school overcrowding is an issue, and fully funds a program that covers the leftover cost of attending community college for Connecticut high school graduates after they have received other forms of financial aid. The budget keeps other forms of municipal aid intact and makes a one-time allocation of $100 million to help 25 distressed cities and towns.

Five things you may have missed

Democrats say equity is missing from Lamont’s budget: Lawmakers from Hartford, New Haven and other cities tangled with Lamont’s budget director during a briefing Thursday, saying they didn’t see enough in his spending and taxing plan to tackle equity issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. “What I’m seeing in this budget doesn’t look like equity to me,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, adding that he believed the state needed to raise more revenue to fund education and social service programs. “I saw nothing that talked about how we are going to deal with the equity issue,” said Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford. Melissa McCaw, the budget director, pushed back hard, saying cities would receive tens of millions in additional aid under Lamont’s plan and that it includes hundreds of millions in bond funds for affordable housing statewide. “It is not missing from this budget,” she said, adding that Lamont had “open ears” to potential changes.

Legal marijuana sales could begin in 2022: Among the legislative proposals Lamont issued Wednesday alongside his budget was a detailed bill to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana, with a target date of May 2022 for sales to begin. Some of the revenue from an excise tax on marijuana sales would be directed toward distressed cities and towns and municipalities would have the option of adding on an additional local tax. “Massachusetts dispensaries are advertising extensively here in Connecticut,” Lamont said in his budget address on Wednesday. “Rather than surrender this market to out-of-staters, or worse, to the unregulated underground market, our budget provides for the legalization of recreational marijuana.” While legal marijuana sales would bring new revenue, the budget also includes some additional costs for drug-recognition training for state troopers and staff at the Department of Consumer Protection to regulate the industry. Growing marijuana at home would remain prohibited.

Hearing approaches on eliminating religious vaccine exemptions: A marathon online public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday on a bill that would eliminate the state’s religious exemption from otherwise required vaccinations for schoolchildren. In February 2020, about a month before the coronavirus pandemic shut down business at the state Capitol, crowds of parents in opposition showed up to testify during what turned out to be a more than 20-hour hearing. This year’s online hearing will be capped at 24 hours. The bill lawmakers will hear testimony on is similar to last year’s with one key change: this year’s version would only grandfather in older children. Only students in seventh grade or above would be allowed to retain their religiously exempt status. Lawmakers turned their attention to the issue after a 2019 measles outbreak and state data that showed a significant increase in religious exemptions and many schools with vaccination levels below recommendations from public health experts.

Tribes say they are ‘really close’ to deal on sports betting: Lamont’s budget counts on $50 million in new revenue from online gambling and sports betting by 2022 and the tribes that operate the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino say they are “really, really close” in reaching agreement on potential legislation to enact it. Negotiations over sports betting in Connecticut between the state and the governor’s office have been ongoing for several years, with a major point of contention being whether the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes would be granted exclusive access to the lucrative new market. Connecticut had once been seen as poised to act quickly after a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed states to offer the new form of gambling. But it has fallen behind states like Rhode Island and New Jersey. “We’re at the one-yard line,” Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket tribal chairman, said of reaching a deal.

Murphy, Blumenthal sit as impeachment jurors for second time: Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal said it was a harrowing experience to watch “footage of all of us fleeing for our lives” as they heard House Democrats impeachment case against former President Donald Trump. “None of this is fun,” Murphy said. “What we are doing as a jury is reliving that day.” As was the case in his first trial, Trump is not expected to be convicted for his role in inciting the violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. A procedural vote before the trial began indicated Democrats will fall short of the 17 Republican votes needed for a conviction. Before the trial, Blumenthal said even if Trump was not convicted “this kind of public airing can have a powerful impact” on how the nation views the insurrection both day and in the future.

Odds and ends

Connecticut education Commissioner Miguel Cardona moved a step closer to becoming the next U.S. education secretary Thursday as the Senate’s education committee voted to advance his nomination to a vote in the full Senate. Cardona cleared the committee on a 17-5 vote with the support of most of the Republicans on the panel. “Miguel is respected by both Democrats and Republicans alike, and has a plan to put our students and educators first,” said Murphy, a committee member. … State Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, has filed paperwork to challenge Congressman Joe Courtney in the state’s 2nd Congressional District next year. France, first elected in 2014, is a member of the General Assembly’s conservative caucus and is the top House Republican on the budget-writing appropriations committee. An electrical engineer and retired U.S. Navy officer, France faces an uphill battle in defeating Courtney, a Democrat who has remained popular in his district even as it has trended to the right. … U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, has drawn two primary challengers who say the longtime congressman is out of step with the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. Muad Hrezi, a former Murphy staffer who grew up in Naugatuck and has moved back to Connecticut, and Andrew Legnani, an insurance adviser from Berlin, both launched their campaigns in recent weeks. It’s the first time Larson has faced a primary since he first ran for the seat in 1998. … Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, has proposed legislation to overhaul Connecticut’s laws governing those who interfere with the operations of state government in response to last month’s violent assault on the U.S. Capitol. The bill’s changes include stiffer penalties for assaulting state Capitol police officers and new charges related to impeding the business of the General Assembly by refusing to leave the Capitol when ordered to do so. It would also make it a felony to destroy official legislative documents or bring weapons into the Capitol complex. … State Auditor Rob Kane, a former Republican state Senator, died at his Watertown home on Feb. 5. He was 53. His cause of death was not immediately known. As one of the state’s two chief auditors, who are appointed by the legislature, he oversaw an office that has oversight of virtually every department in state government. It issues frequent reports with recommendations for reforms. “All public servants should be commended for their work on behalf of our residents, and Rob took his work seriously,” Lamont said. “He will be missed at the Capitol.”

Russell Blair can be reached at


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