HARTFORD, CT — (Updated 5:45 p.m.) A $43.3 billion spending plan proposed by Democratic lawmakers that sticks closely to Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont’s two-year, $43.1 billion budget proposal passed the Appropriations Committee Tuesday in a strictly partisan vote.
All 32 Democrats voted in favor; all 17 Republicans voted no. Two Republican lawmakers were absent.
The Democrats’ plan, passed after a 2-hour debate, would increase spending 1.9% in the first year and 3.6% in the second year, about two tenths of a percent more than the spending increases in Lamont’s proposal in each year of the biennium.
However, there are some key differences between the two plans.
The Appropriations Committee plan would allocate more money for education, and it looked as if the spending proposal they released at 9 a.m. rejected Lamont’s proposal to shift about $73 million of teacher pension costs onto cities and towns.
“The municipal contribution to the Teachers’ Retirement System is not recommended,” the document states.
Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said that’s not what they intended and the document is inaccurate. The plan does seek to adopt the teacher pension shift, but it accepts it as a recommendation to continue the conversation.
She said the committee gave the new Lamont administration some leeway to further explain their position on some of these proposals and accepted responsibility for the error.
“We’ll leave the budget as it is today and we’ll continue the discussion,” Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said, who added after being questioned on the issue by Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme: “We do believe that municipalities will wind up with some form of contribution to the teachers retirement fund.”
Some Republican members of the committee criticized the budget plan for exceeding the amount of money that Lamont plans to spend, stating it was a bad idea to increase spending and taxes.
To that criticism, Osten said: “I haven’t heard anybody come up with a billion dollar in budget cuts.”
Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST), said she’s disappointed its still in there.
We are very disappointed that shifting teachers’ pension costs to towns is still on the table,” said
“Shifting $73 million in pension costs onto the backs of already overburdened homeowners and other property taxpayers will diminish housing values, undermining our state and local economies,” Gara added.
The committee budget also increases funding for the Education Cost Sharing formula by $37.5 million in the first year and $78 million in the second year of the budget. The funding increases are part of the formula adopted as part of the bipartisan budget agreement signed into law by former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
The committee’s spending plan nixed Lamont’s proposal to provide $300,000 for three consultants to assist school districts with efforts to regionalize, along with an additional $500,000 to help districts consolidate or expand shared services.
“This is an honest line-by-line budget that increases local education funding, increases our investments in job training, and continues the promises we made the last two years in our bipartisan budget,” said Osten, a Sprague Democrat who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee. “We provide funding for the start-up of a higher minimum wage, paid family and medical leave, a public health care option for families and small businesses, a jobs funnel, juvenile justice initiatives, a new state trooper class, and re-opening our highway rest stops and welcome centers.”
The Appropriations Committee budget also increases funding for the Connecticut Youth Employment Program and the Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative by $1 million each, and increases money for the Jobs Funnel Program. It also includes $800,000 in both years for a pilot re-entry program in Bridgeport.
The proposal also increases funding to the Department of Transportation by $1.3 million to extend the hours of operation for seven rest areas to 24 hours. Currently the rest areas are open from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm. The move would also save about $25,000 in portable restroom rental fees.
“I especially appreciate their support to grow good paying jobs here in Connecticut through funding of advanced manufacturing as well as their support of the structural reforms including municipal cost sharing in our teacher pensions, healthcare and debt proposed in my budget,” Lamont said.
Walker said they adopted the governor’s stance on the issues and “we feel that is a good beginning for us to talk about as far as how we feel it should be addressed.”
The Appropriations Committee decided against adopting the governor’s proposal to place an asset test on the Medicare Savings Program. The program helps low-income adults — those who make less than 246 percent of the federal poverty level — pay for their Part B Medicare benefits.
Part B covers things like doctor visits, lab tests, and outpatient care. Those earning less than 246 percent of the poverty level can receive additional help covering co-pays, deductibles, and prescriptions.
Advocates have argued that an asset test would not save enough money to make it worth it. The committee agrees.
The Democratic spending plan also adds back about $14 million for mental health and substance abuse treatment, and includes $1 million in start-up costs for a public option to allow small businesses to join the Connecticut state employees health insurance plan managed by state Comptroller Kevin Lembo.
The Appropriations Committee budget also accepts that the current taxing scheme for Connecticut hospitals will remain in place and is leaving it to the Lamont administration to continue those negotiations. Because of ongoing litigation by some of the hospitals it has been difficult for lawmakers to discuss how much in taxes the hospitals should pay.
The Finance, Revenue, and Bonding Committee will bring more clarity to the fiscal picture when it releases its tax proposal Wednesday.
Jack Kramer contributed to this report.