Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were critical of a proposal by Gov. Ned Lamont Wednesday to delay scheduled hikes in municipal education funding in favor of a one-time shot of federal stimulus money.
Lamont’s recommendation was part of his $46 billion two-year budget plan. It called for freezing the funding of Education Cost Sharing grants at their current levels and using more than $440 million in one-time federal stimulus resources to pay for the education funding.
“We will continue to maintain our commitment to the Educational Cost Sharing formula, with additional monies provided by federal resources, so every kid gets the best opportunity at the starting line of life, regardless of zip code,” Lamont said Wednesday during his pre-recorded budget speech.
However, some in the legislature immediately bristled at the idea of delaying the scheduled increases. Those raises were passed on a bipartisan basis by the General Assembly in 2017. They’re part of a plan to boost funding to Connecticut schools gradually over 10 years.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff said the plan was part of an agreement with Republicans.
“Even with the federal money notwithstanding, we should continue to honor that agreement,” he said. “We’ve seen the cracks in the system this year and we want to make sure we’re taking care of not only our urban districts but our rural districts as well.”
Appropriations Committee Co-Chair Sen. Cathy Osten told reporters she would look at Lamont’s proposal with a “clear eye,” but worried some towns would wind up on the losing end of the change. Osten said some municipalities were already underfunded and she worried that towns would be heading for a “fiscal cliff” after the two-year infusion of federal money.
“I certainly appreciate the federal government providing us with revenue but I think we have to be very clear that we’re not setting those communities up to adjust to a $200 million shortfall in just two short years,” she said.
During a separate press conference, Republicans denounced the change. Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said the bipartisan agreement, which directed additional funds at lower-performing districts, was designed to remove the politics from ECS funding.
“This budget will leave Connecticut children behind and turn back the hands of time to when decisions for education were based on political whims not on the needs of our future,” Kelly said.
Max Reiss, Lamont’s chief spokesman, called some of the concerns about the proposal “short-sighted.” He said the governor was simply using the stimulus money to “honor the ECS formula.”
“That does two things: number one, this avoids a tax increase to pay for [the education funding] statewide. Number two, it protects the Rainy Day Fund,” Reiss said. “We’ve kept tax rates flat for the next biennium. For the subsequent biennium, the Rainy Day Fund is there as another potential source.”
The wide-ranging state budget Lamont proposed Wednesday relies on $1.75 billion in anticipated federal aid over two years. In the absence of more stimulus, the state would need to tap into the Rainy Day Fund, which currently contains $3 billion.
In a press release, Connecticut Conference of Municipalities spokesman Kevin Maloney said the group appreciated the increase in emergency assistance but was concerned by the proposal to delay the scheduled increase in ECS.
“As we move forward through the budget process, CCM will continue to advocate for long-term local property tax relief, which requires predictable and recurring funding for municipalities,” he said.