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Democrats advance ‘COVID relief budget’ for consideration

April 7, 2022 GMT

With Connecticut flush with federal COVID-19 relief funds, the Democratic-controlled Appropriations Committee advanced a one-year, $24.16 billion spending plan on Thursday that attempts to address the pandemic’s continuing impacts.

The spending proposal, which makes adjustments to the second year of the two-year budget passed last year, cleared the committee on a mostly party-line vote, 35-15. Along with a tax package that passed Wednesday, it will become the basis for closed-door negotiations between the General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, who unveiled his budget proposal in February.

“For me, this is a COVID relief budget; a budget that meets the immediate challenges we face today while investing in an equitable future,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat and the committee’s co-chairperson.

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Both the governor’s budget and the Democratic legislative plan focus heavily on addressing the continuing impacts of the pandemic, ranging from an increased demand for mental health services among children and adults to financial challenges faced by child care providers. But legislative Republicans, the minority party in the General Assembly, criticized the committee’s bill for not providing more funding to reduce debt in the unemployment trust fund, which they contend is unfair to put on the backs of businesses that struggled during the pandemic.

Republicans also voiced concern over Democrats using one-time federal funds to pay for ongoing expenses, including criminal justice initiatives, and were circumventing the state’s cap on spending.

Here are some highlights of the budget bill:

FEDERAL FUNDS

Connecticut has roughly $373 million in funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to use in this year’s budget, Osten said. While the Democratic plan spends the money on some of the same initiatives as Lamont’s budget, such as $14.4 million in grants for broadband infrastructure and more than $42 million to continue an expanded tax credit for low-and-moderate-income families, it does shift money from Lamont’s list to other projects.

The Democrats’ budget uses $21 million of the ARPA money to pay for additional urgent mental health crisis centers and a subacute crisis stability unit; $15 million to expand medical and psychiatric inpatient services at Connecticut Children’s medical center; and $2.9 million to provide additional services for domestic violence victims. There’s also additional funds for early childhood programs, including $20 million for infant and toddler slots, and money for school-based health centers, college scholarships and “temporary support” for state colleges and universities.

CRIME AND LAW ENFORCEMENT

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Some Republican legislators on the committee questioned why the Democratic spending plan relied on one-time federal COVID-19 money to fund some anti-crime initiatives, including $2.6 million to fund state and local police efforts to address cart thefts. They argued it should instead be included in the regular budget.

Crime has become a major issue in the 2022 election. Both the General Assembly and the governor are up for reelection in November.

“Is it the view of those that have assembled this budget, in the way that it’s been assembled, that those increases in violent crime are not going ... to need continuing financial effort on the part of the state of Connecticut?” asked Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, the top Senate Republican on the committee.

Osten said the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection thought it was better to use American Rescue Plan funds to address violent crime, additional speed enforcement and other anti-crime efforts “to give them time to see if this was just a COVID-related issue and will dissipate while they’re addressing the issue.”

CONTRACTING STANDARDS BOARD, OTHER CHANGES

While much of the Democratic budget mirrors the governor’s proposal, there are a couple major areas where they diverge. For example, the plan advanced Thursday restores $454,355 that the General Assembly approved last year for the State Contracting Standards Board, enabling the agency to hire five staff members. The committee also included language that provides the board with budgetary independents, similar to other watchdog agencies like the Office of State Ethics.

Lamont has called for creating a new three-member unit within the state’s office of the Auditors of Public Accounts, a move the board’s chairman recently warned legislators would “effectively remove the real time remedial statutory authority of the Board to intervene and take appropriate corrective action when there are violations of Connecticut procurement and contracting law.”

Lamont recently said he is open to funding the board.

The budget bill passed Thursday also scrapped the Lamont administration’s plans to centralize information technology functions of the Executive Branch in the Department of Administrative Services. Osten said the lawmakers wanted to wait to see how efforts to centralize human resources services worked out first.