Gov. Lamont budget legalizes marijuana, holds line on taxes

Gov. Ned Lamont proposed a lean budget Wednesday that avoids major tax hikes, legalizes the sale of marijuana and expands gambling to include online and sports wagers. But critics say it doesn't go far enough to address the ongoing COVID crisis.
"I've always said, we don't need more taxes, we need more taxpayers," Lamont said in a pre-recorded budget address. "While my administration will continue to be laser focused on managing the COVID-19 crisis, we must focus on the light at the end of the tunnel."
MARIJUANA WOULD BE LEGALIZED
Under the governor's proposal, marijuana sales would begin in May 2022, although cities and towns could ban dispensaries. Marijuana could be pricey though - it could be taxed as high as 18%. Criminal convictions before 2015 would automatically be wiped clean, while those with later convictions could petition for removal.
The plan would allow people to possess up to 1.5 ounces. Licenses would be given out through a lottery system, and home growing would not be allowed.
"Massachusetts dispensaries are advertising extensively here in Connecticut. And, 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," Lamont said.
GAMBLING EXPANSION
Gov. Lamont is also moving forward with online and sports betting, although he still hasn't reached a deal with the state's two casinos to offer it.
"My administration has been in active negotiations with our tribal partners to bring the state's gaming economy into the digital age. And I am submitting legislation which reflects what I believe to be the best bet in ending this stalemate of inaction in a way which is in the best interest for the entire state," said Lamont.
TAXES AND SCHOOL FUNDING
Although Lamont is proposing no new taxes, previously scheduled tax breaks would be on hold for business and retired teachers. There is no new money for hard-hit nonprofits. However, cities, towns and schools would get extra help.
Most of the extra money comes from one-time COVID-19 relief money from Washington. For the rest, Lamont plans to tap the state's "Rainy Day Fund," which now sits at a record high thanks to a booming stock market and new residents moving to Connecticut. A promised increase in direct state aid to school systems would be delayed.
Republican leaders were unimpressed with the budget plan.
"What I don't see in this budget is the bold new proposals that we need to get out of this pandemic," said state Rep. Vin Candelora, the top Republican in the Connecticut House.
NEW FEE FOR BIG RIG TRUCKERS
Tolls are not on the table, as Lamont pushed for last year, but tractor-trailers would have to pay a "mileage fee" starting in 2023.
"It's a toll of a different color, in the sense that, you know, instead of tolling cars as they ride on 95, it's now looking at kind of the same argument," said state Sen. Kevin Kelly of Stratford, the GOP leader in the Connecticut Senate.
The Motor Transportation Association of Connecticut blasted the plan.
"The workers in an industry that he himself declared 'essential' have been among the heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing vaccines, medications, hospital equipment, and groceries to locations all across the state. Now, the Governor wants to reward them by assessing a discriminatory new tax," said MTAC President Joe Sculley.
Lamont's budget chief insisted the fee is not a toll.
"The difference, I would say, is that, obviously, there was considerable concern about truck tolls becoming car tolls. And this is not a tolling package. This is a highway use fee," said Melissa McCaw, the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management.
Lamont's budget is bullish on climate change. Connecticut would join a regional Transportation and Climate Initiative to cap carbon emissions, but critics warn the extra cost could be passed onto customers at the gas pump.
FEWER PRISONS, MORE STATE TROOPERS
Gov. Lamont's budget calls for closing three state prisons, including Northern Correctional Institution, Connecticut's only maximum security lock-up. But at the same time, the state would add nearly 200 state troopers, bringing the understaffed Connecticut State Police up to around 1,100 troopers.
PRAISE, CRITICISM FOR BUDGET
The state's largest business group, Connecticut Business and Industry Association, praised Lamont's budget, but said it's still reviewing the proposed mileage fee on tractor-trailers.
"Transportation infrastructure investments are absolutely critical to moving our state forward, but a successful plan cannot be developed without bipartisan support," said CBIA president Chirs DiPimentina.
Labor unions blasted Lamont's proposal as inadequate.
"Governor Lamont's budget does not meet the urgency of this moment," said Connecticut AFL-CIO president Sal Luciano. "There are more people out of work now than during the Great Recession. But I didn't hear anywhere near enough about creating jobs programs for the nearly 200,000 people out of work in our state."