Pandemic Pay Included In Budget Deal Up For Vote In House

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Certain private sector workers determined to be “essential” during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic will share $30 million in pandemic bonuses under a one-year, $24.2 billion state budget plan being debated in the Connecticut House of Representatives on Monday evening.

While the late addition of “hero pay” to the budget bill was welcomed by advocates, the sum is far less than what they had wanted. The AFL-CIO of Connecticut had estimated $750 million was needed to cut checks for tens of thousands of workers across the state, in crucial jobs ranging from nurses in hospitals to clerks at grocery stores.

“We're glad that some people are going to get something,” said Ed Hawthorne, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. “To be clear, this isn't over. The fight for us, it's just the beginning.”

Connecticut has been among a number of cities and states that struggled over the past year to determine who among the many workers who braved the raging coronavirus pandemic before vaccines became available should qualify for extra pay, which is allowed under the federal rules for how to spend pandemic relief funds.

It was one of the final issues to be tackled in the budget agreement, first announced last week by Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont and the legislative Democrats, who control the General Assembly. The deal also reduces various taxes by a total of roughly $600 million, according to the Democrats. The list includes continuation of the 25-cent-per-gallon gas tax cut until Dec. 1; creation of a new, one-year $250 child care tax credit; the phase-out of taxes on pension, annuity and 401K income by 2024; a lower cap on local car taxes that applies to 75 communities; and an increased local property tax credit against the personal income tax, from $200 to $300, that applies to more taxpayers.

While Democrats claimed the proposed tax cuts totaled the largest in state history, few if any Republicans were expected to vote for the package. House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, called the one-year cuts “gimmicks” and argued that lawmakers should have made more systemic changes to the state's tax system. Republicans said there's really only $300 million in tax cuts after taking out the temporary gas tax and one-year child tax credit.

“This is a budget that’s crafted for November," said Candelora, referring to the upcoming election. “Republicans wanted a budget that’s crafted for the future.” He argued that Connecticut taxpayers want to see permanent reductions in the state's sales and income taxes. Democrats claim federal rules governing how much states can cut taxes after receiving millions in federal pandemic funds would not permit the GOP's cuts.

Besides being “underwhelmed” by the tax cut proposals in the budget, Candelora said Republicans are also concerned by the “significant amounts of spending, which gives everybody pause," especially in future budget years.

The Democratic budget, which updates the second year of the two-year budget passed last year, includes new spending for mental health programs for children and adults, early childhood programs and childcare worker salaries, community centers and nonprofit social service providers, as well as a $3.6 billion payment to help cover unfunded pension liability. Also, $40 million in federal pandemic funds are being used to reduce the estimated $493 million debt in the state’s unemployment trust fund. That's in addition to $155 million in federal funds deposited last year, in an effort to reduce the burden on businesses that have to cover the cost.

The pandemic bonuses, to be administered by the State Comptroller, will be provided to private sector workers who were on the job during the entire period of Lamont's public health and civil preparedness emergency. Eligible workers would be those included in phases 1a and 1b of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations. Those workers includes a range of health care personnel and others considered at the highest risk of contracting COVID, such as bus drivers, child care staff and manufacturing personnel.

Eligible full-time workers will receive between $200 to $1,000 from the new Connecticut Premium Pay program, depending on their income, which is capped at $150,000. Eligible part-time workers will receive $500.

Candelora called the initiative “problematic," accusing Democrats of “pandering” to certain groups of people.

“Bottom line is, all of Connecticut suffered under this pandemic. So to select certain people and start giving money away isn’t the systemic change that we really need,” he said.

State workers are not part of this pandemic pay program, but Max Reiss, spokesman for Lamont, said the administration is “still working on negotiating any details” of pandemic pay for state employees, which receive three years of pay raises in the new budget. The program doesn't apply to federal or municipal workers, some of whom have received pandemic pay from local governments.

Earlier in the day, House legislative leaders said there may be a vote Monday night on a separate bill that would provide state lawmakers with a pay raise. Legislators haven’t seen an increase in their $28,000 base pay in 21 years, prompting several to announce they're not seeking re-election because they can no longer afford to serve anymore. Connecticut is one of several states where bills were proposed this year to boost salaries.