'We have not made everybody happy.' Lawmakers unveil lean state budget

Despite overflowing state coffers, Connecticut lawmakers are tightening the purse strings. The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee approved a lean spending plan Tuesday evening that left school reformers and nonprofits crying foul.

John Craven

Apr 18, 2023, 11:38 PM

Updated 363 days ago

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Despite overflowing state coffers, Connecticut lawmakers are tightening the purse strings. The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee approved a lean spending plan Tuesday evening that left school reformers and nonprofits crying foul.
Top lawmakers acknowledged they couldn’t make everyone happy.
“There are some things in here that we all don't like, and there are things in here that we do like,” said state Rep. Toni Walker (D-New Haven), the committee’s co-chair.
Even though the state has a record $3 billion surplus, top lawmakers said their hands are tied by strict spending caps and a big tax cut Gov. Ned Lamont proposed.
“We have not made everybody happy this year,” said state Sen. Cathy Osten (D-Sprague), the panel’s other leader. “We have stuck to the confines of the spending cap.”
ANSWER TO LAMONT’S BUDGET
The $51 billion proposal is the Legislature’s answer to Lamont’s two-year budget. It spends slightly more – around $400 million – but also makes some important changes.
So what’s in their budget?
WINNERS
Winners include schools – especially new charter schools. The Legislature wants to fund three new charters, including one in Norwalk. But a tense debate broke out Tuesday over a last-minute attempt to add the long-delayed Danbury Charter School to the budget.
Although Democrats defeated the surprise amendment, many said they support the school.
As for public schools, lawmakers are proposing $150 million extra to accelerate a new school funding formula – far short of what advocates are pushing for – plus $20 million to keep “overfunded” districts from losing money.
“Every day, hundreds of thousands of Connecticut students walk into schools that don’t have the funding, staff and services to meet their needs,” said Lisa Hammersley, the executive director of the School and State Finance Project. “This is an unacceptable reality that, unfortunately, the budget proposal released today does not fully address.”
Undocumented immigrants won a muted victory. HUSKY Medicaid would cover them up to 15 years of age under the Legislature’s budget – but advocates want the cap raised to 26 years old. Lamont’s budget leaves the age cap at 12.
Lawmakers also added more money for GPS monitoring of domestic violence suspects.
LOSERS
Nonprofit agencies, which provide dozens of vital services for the state, came out with the same minor funding increase Lamont offered them.
"With inflation at 6.5%, a 1% increase is essentially a 5.5% cut for nonprofit programs, including behavioral and developmental health, housing, community justice and other services on which thousands of human beings across Connecticut depend,” said Gian Carl Casa, president and CEO of the Connecticut Community Nonprofit Alliance.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said nonprofits need more money.
“I am terribly concerned that some of them, you know, won't be able to stay afloat,” said state Rep. Mitch Bolinksy (R-Newtown).
Also excluded? A plan to extend universal free meals at schools into next school year.
“Is Connecticut really going to prioritize giving minimal tax cuts and growing the state’s already-enormous savings account over feeding hungry children and helping working families struggling with inflation and high food costs?,” said End Hunger CT! policy director Lucy Nolan. “The state is awash in surplus dollars.”
Also not funded: a "Safe Harbor Fund” to help out-of-state abortion patients. Lamont proposed $2 million for it, but a related bill failed to get a committee vote last month.
Local voter registrars are also upset. The legislature’s plan only allocates $3.5 million to implement early voting, but cities and towns recently said they need much more.
Osten said early voting funding is “a work in progress” that depends on when, and how, lawmakers choose to implement it.
UCONN FUNDING
The most controversial part of the budget is funding for the University of Connecticut.
Hundreds of students protested Lamont’s proposal, which cut UConn’s overall funding by about $300 million. The Appropriations Committee budget restores about one-third of that, but most of that money is one-time federal funding.
“We continue to review the complete impact; however, the university is heartened that the budget put forward by the committee provides additional one-time resources to cover a portion of the budget shortfalls for UConn and UConn Health,” said UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz. “This is a positive step. We look forward to working with the General Assembly and governor to explore ways to address our remaining shortfall with the hope that permanent funding can be part of the solution.”
The university has warned that less funding could mean a substantial tuition hike.
“It's already expensive for me to be here,” freshman Abrielis Mejia told News 12 in February. “Adding, like, another three thousand? That's going to be a little rough.”
Lawmakers also rejected Lamont’s proposal to combine funding for the university and UConn Health.
SURPLUS MONEY
If the state has such a big surplus, why can’t lawmakers spend it?
They’re limited by several “fiscal guardrails” that lawmakers just extended earlier this year. Most of the surplus will go towards the state’s staggering pension debt. Connecticut is one of the most indebted states in the nation.
Progressive groups say the state is sitting on cash that could go to better use. But Lamont said the restrictions made this year’s historic tax cut proposal possible.
“There are dozens of rallies each saying, ‘I need more; I need more,’” said Lamont. “Obviously, we're doing much more than we ever have before."
FOCUS SHIFTS TO TAX CUTS
All eyes now shift to the Legislature’s Finance Committee, which will unveil its tax cut plan on Wednesday.
After that, top lawmakers will negotiate a final budget package with the Lamont administration before the session ends on June 7.


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