The Connecticut House took a unanimous vote Tuesday to require legislative oversight of how Gov. Ned Lamont plans to spend $2.7 billion in federal funding coming to the state under the recently-passed COVID relief bill.
The bill was approved on a 147 – 0 vote after about 20 minutes of praise from lawmakers in both parties. It requires Lamont to submit a spending plan to the leaders of the legislature’s Democratic majority, who would refer the plan to the Appropriations Committee for approval or modification and ultimately a vote by the General Assembly.
Although much of earlier federal relief funding was dedicated to specific purposes, the governor has managed its allocation and other aspects of state government through increased executive authority under emergency declarations.
House Speaker Matt Ritter and Senate President Martin Looney released a joint statement Tuesday saying the bill would ensure cooperation between the two branches of government as the state allocates the huge influx of federal dollars.
“The very nature of any pandemic response requires agility and flexibility – federal guidance has changed and evolved throughout the past year – and we recognize that there will likely be changes even after the Governor provides us with his allocation plan in April. It is imperative that the Legislative Branch and the Executive Branch continue to work closely as federal guidance inevitably shifts,” the legislative leaders said.
In a statement, Paul Mounds, Lamont’s chief of staff, said the bill was consistent with the governor’s efforts to work with the legislature. He said the language codified transparency efforts by the administration to post the spending of federal dollars online and share them with the General Assembly and state comptroller.
Lamont “is supportive and encourages discussion and collaboration with leadership in the General Assembly on decisions as we appear to be seeing more light at the end of the tunnel as vaccine distribution continues at the current rapid pace. The legislative and executive branches must continue [to] work together to help our state emerge from this pandemic stronger than ever before,” Mounds said.
During the discussion of the bill on the House floor, Republicans lauded the legislature’s bipartisan work to reassert a role in how the state would allocate the money. House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora urged the legislature to push to see the money spent on one-time issues raised by the pandemic rather than budgeted for ongoing expenses.
“We need to now look at the collateral impacts that have been caused by this virus. Whether it be the impacts on education, things like domestic violence, drug abuse, mental health, all of those needs are very real,” he said. “What this legislation essentially is doing is — I think — returning the process back to normal and allowing for us as a legislature to work through this.”
Legislative action to resume a greater role in governing the state comes as Lamont has signalled he plans to let some of his executive authority expire on April 20.
Earlier Tuesday, Ritter and House Majority Leader Jason Rojas told reporters they were in the process of reviewing the executive orders Lamont had issued over the past year with an eye towards determining which needed to be codified and which could safely lapse.
Ritter said the legislature planned to pass a bill to allow Connecticut residents to use fear of contracting COVID to vote by absentee ballot in municipal elections and referendums after April 20. Legislative leaders were planning to meet Thursday with the governor’s office to determine what other orders needed to be codified.
Both Ritter and Rojas suggested that Lamont’s emergency authority might continue past April 20. Ritter pointed to the state mask mandate, which he said should be tied to the most current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control rather than passed as legislation. Rojas said some federal funding might also be tied to the state’s ongoing emergency declarations.
“There’s some longer-term considerations: if we’re not in a public health crisis what kind of impact does that have for FEMA reimbursements? If we end that too soon does that disqualify us from receiving reimbursement from the federal government?” he said.
There were no specific answers yet.