Democratic Governor, Lawmakers Say Budget Deal Is Close

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont and Democratic legislative leaders said Friday they're close to reaching a “comprehensive understanding” on a new two-year state budget that does not raise new taxes, yet makes major investments in education, health care, municipal aid, workforce development and rent relief.

The Democratic leaders, who control the General Assembly, said the tentative budget language would be presented Friday evening to both Democratic and Republican rank-and-file lawmakers in hopes of attracting bipartisan support. The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn its regular legislative session Wednesday at midnight.

“We think we are very close to a comprehensive understanding. But of course there are a number of details that were discussed in concept that have to be verified in depth” by the governor's and legislature's budget offices, said Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven.

Given the progress with negotiations, House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said the House would not be voting Saturday on a “legislative budget,” something he said earlier in the day was possible if an agreement couldn't be reached with Lamont in time for the legislature's deadline. Among other things, a compromise was reached on how much of the sales tax revenue that's supposed to be diverted to help cities and towns will be included in the budget.

Lamont said Friday he'd like to get the budget — a key priority — passed on time.

“I think it's a budget that's incredibly bold. I think it's very progressive and it's balanced without new taxes,” Lamont said. “I think when you look at what we're doing for child care, when you look at what we're doing for schools, when you look at what we're doing for rent relief, when you look at what we're doing for the colleges, it's unprecedented.”

The budget and the legalization of recreational cannabis are two of the last major bills that need to be voted on before the regular session adjourns. House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said Friday that a “pencils down agreement” had been reached on the complicated bill that creates a new legalized system for cannabis sales.

“We're done negotiating and taking all of the wonderful ideas that people have wanted to contribute to this piece of legislation,” he said. Rojas said there was progress made in recent days toward making sure the bill is “really open to a broad spectrum of individuals” who want to become involved in the marijuana industry, rather than the large corporations with access to capital that have dominated the markets in others states.

Rank-and-file lawmakers were supposed to be briefed on the cannabis legislation as well. It remained uncertain when the legislation could come up for a vote.

Despite being from the same political party and historic amounts of federal coronavirus relief funds, it's been a challenge for Lamont and the Democrats to reach consensus on a new budget.

Members of the legislature's progressive caucus have pushed for higher taxes on the wealthy, arguing major investments are needed to address longstanding inequities long after federal funds run out — something Lamont, a former businessman and fiscal moderate, has opposed. While the legislature's Finance Revenue and Bonding Committee passed a tax package that included a new “consumption tax” and capital gains tax on higher income taxpayers, as well as other tax increases, tax proposals are no longer being considered in the negotiations.

“This budget will not increase taxes,” said Melissa McCaw, Lamont's budget director, who noted that Connecticut's revenue projections have been improving consistently as the state emerges from the pandemic. She said about $1.2 billion in federal virus funds will also be used to balance the budget.

Meanwhile, a contentious plan from Lamont to have Connecticut join the multi-state Transportation and Climate Initiative is no longer being considered this year, Democrats confirmed. The program, which the leaders of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., had also supported, involved raising money through wholesale fuel suppliers to ultimately pay for clean transportation investments. Critics said that would increase gas prices by 5 to 9 cents.

Lamont's proposal for a new mileage-based “highway use” tax on tractor-trailers, where the weight of the trucks determines the rate paid, won't be included in the budget bill, but could come up in a separate bill. Modeled after programs in New York and Oregon, the tax is projected to generate $90 million annually to help shore up the state’s financially troubled transportation fund.