Budget battle brewing as state lawmakers head back to Hartford

Connecticut lawmakers return the State Capitol on Wednesday.
But already, a budget battle is brewing with Gov. Ned Lamont – and everyone from the homeless to students are caught in the middle.
MONEY TO AVOID TUITION HIKES?
Lamont’s 2024 Budget Address is still two days away, but the press conferences asking for more money have already begun.
On Monday, students at Connecticut State Colleges and Universities asked for emergency funding to prevent yet another tuition hike – as well as steep cuts.
“We are requesting an investment of $160 million to embrace our state universities,” said Sadie Boisvert, a social work student at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury.
The CSCU Board of Regents just approved a 5% tuition increase for the state’s four state colleges and 12 community colleges. That’s on top of a $140 million “deficit mitigation plan” announced in November, which includes staff cuts and fewer course offerings.
“I personally have had to take out additional loans to ensure I graduate this semester,” said Madison Nelson, a psychology and sociology student at Central Connecticut State in New Britain.
Regents said the current state budget gave them no choice, especially after the Lamont administration negotiated raises for unionized workers in 2022.
"We are doing the best we can," CSCU Chancellor Terrence Cheng said on Dec. 14. "The state of Connecticut’s biennium budget allocation for CSCU falls significantly short of what is necessary to maintain our existing levels of operations.”
While state funding to CSCU and the University of Connecticut increased, overall funding dropped because one-time federal pandemic funds ran out.
“The numbers tell the facts – state funding for CSCU in the current fiscal year is at its highest level ever in history,” Lamont’s office said in a statement. “CSCU is currently receiving $100 million more in annual state funding than on the day Governor Lamont took office. In the current operating budget, CSCU is receiving a $19 million increase over last year. The budget further increases CSCU’s annual state funding by more than $16 million in FY 2025, with most of that increase directed at helping students through PACT scholarships and funding for academic advisors.”
Lamont has hinted that he might increase higher education funding in his budget proposal, to be unveiled on Wednesday.
“We’re working very closely with Terrence [Cheng] and the Board of Regents on that,” Lamont said on Dec. 19. “Everything is, you know, open to discussion.”
OTHER COMPETING NEEDS
Just down the hall from the students’ news conference, lawmakers from both parties proposed $20 million more to combat homelessness.
“We have elderly people in the Northwest Corner actually living in their car,” said state Rep. Jay Case (R-Winchester). “We have one veteran living in his truck; we actually helped him by paying his fuel, so he can keep his truck running. This is inhumane.”
Non-profits that perform critical services, like battling the skyrocketing fentanyl crisis, are demanding more funding too. They want a 5% increase this year – plus yearly hikes tied to inflation.
“Our lowest-paid position is $17 an hour,” Kathleen Deschenes, CEO of Connecticut Renaissance in Shelton, said last Wednesday. “And for that, we’re asking people to come into work every day, not knowing what they’re going to meet on the other side of the door – whether someone is homicidal, suicidal.”
And outside the state Capitol, several groups held a “Transit Equity Day” to call for free bus passes for school children. The price tag? $3 million.
"Gov. Lamont and the Connecticut General Assembly can revise a budget line to make sure our youth – especially those in urban centers – can get to school, make it to weekend or evening jobs and get home after school when they go to sports," said Jay Stange, with the Center for Latino Progress’ Transport Hartford Academy.
The governor has his own priorities too. He plans to propose doubling the increase for child care – from $50 million to $100 million – but that could come at expense of K-12 education, especially magnet and charter schools.
Lamont also wants to eliminate licensing application fees for many child care, teaching and nursing jobs, which could cost $3.5 million.
SPENDING CAPS
There’s plenty of money to pay for all this – on paper. Connecticut is enjoying historic surpluses. But lawmakers’ hands are largely tied because of Connecticut’s strict spending caps.
The “fiscal guardrails” were enacted in 2017, after years of steep budget deficits. Since then, Connecticut has enjoyed huge surpluses and the biggest income tax cut in state history.
But critics say the caps have also shortchanged nonprofits and higher education. This year, some lawmakers want to loosen the “volatility cap,” which limits spending from volatile stock market gains.
“If your apartment is too warm or too cold, you adjust the thermostat. You don't throw out the furnace,” said state Senate President Martin Looney (D-New Haven). “So we’re just talking about adjusting the thermostat here.”
But Lamont and Republican leaders want the caps to remain unchanged.
“The volatility cap is probably the most important of those initiatives -- because that very turbulent revenue was leading to budget shortfall, surplus, shortfall, surplus,” Lamont said last Wednesday. “That’s no way to budget.”
Lamont will deliver his budget address on Wednesday at noon. Watch it live on our streaming channel, News 12 New York.