After months of negotiations lawmakers in the House took a bipartisan vote Wednesday to pass a two-year budget which includes no new tax increases and spends billions in federal funds.
The House voted 116-31 to pass the $46 billion budget with support from all Democrats and 22 Republicans. The tax and spending plan now goes to the Senate for consideration with just 24 hours left in the legislative session.
The absence of new tax increases was vital to securing the support of Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont and legislative Republicans. Almost every tax increase included in the initial Democratic budget proposal was eliminated through negotiations. However, a controversial new fee that Lamont proposed on large commercial trucks also was approved as a separate bill.
“The revenue package will certainly be unexciting,” House Speaker Matt Ritter told reporters Tuesday. “I know some people were disappointed on the revenue side. That case was made and rejected by folks with more power and at the end of the day, I think it’s a really good budget.”
Lawmakers praised the budget as a response to the lasting damage of the COVID-19 pandemic. The package increases aid to towns and cities, expands the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit and includes millions in new funding for nonprofit service providers.
Rep. Toni Walker, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, described a traumatic year marked by the deaths of more than 8,200 Connecticut residents, surging unemployment rates, children out of school and people going without mental health services.
“We all have understood pain where Connecticut is,” said Walker, who survived both COVID and breast cancer in the last year. “It’s time to press the reset button on those issues. It’s time for us to lock arms together and address those issues in the best way.”
House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said legislative Republicans had held firm against the various tax proposals made over the course of the session and some felt they could support the budget package adopted Wednesday morning.
“Our caucus is very pleased that they have seen the light and are putting forth a no-tax increase budget at a time when Connecticut residents are still trying to recover from the pandemic,” Candelora said.
But that bipartisan cooperation would have been unlikely if not for a decision to remove two controversial proposals from the budget package and debate them as separate bills. A highway user fee, which Republicans called a tax on consumers, was passed on its own after a lengthy debate Tuesday. Another bill that expands health insurance to undocumented immigrants under the age of 8 was also approved.
Progressive lawmakers were upset that the budget wouldn’t cover all the undocumented children in the state with Medicaid.
“We are all 100% human,” Rep. Anne Hughes, D-Easton, said. “We are 100%, not three-fifths, not one quarter. One hundred percent, these are our neighbors and community members. Health care should not be a merit-based system.”
The bill will cover undocumented children under the age of 8 and will cost the state $4.1 million next year. It assumes coverage for 1,900 children at an average cost of $2,200 each.
The highway user fee on big tractor-trailer trucks had been sought by Lamont in an effort to prop up the state’s Special Transportation Fund. It was expected to generate about $90 million annually. However, that estimate will likely be impacted by an amendment adopted by the House, which exempts some trucks transporting milk.
Rep. Sean Scanlon, a Guilford Democrat who is co-chair of the Finance Committee, said the bill asked large truck operations to chip in to finance road repair.
“We’re asking them to pay a small fraction on behalf of the wear and tear that they do so that we can make sure that our roads and bridges are not just in a state of good repair but that we actually can do the kind of investments that we need to do to improve our economy and grow our state,” Scanlon said.
Republicans largely opposed the measure, which is why it was separated from the budget. Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown, said he had been “creating buzz” in his district, discussing with constituents a budget that he was considering supporting, one that included no new taxes.
“But this bill, which was negotiated out of the budget so that we could actually fulfill the promise of no new taxes, makes a liar out of all of us,” Bolinsky said. “It makes an absolute sham out of that which our state’s governor has been talking about for five months.”
Lamont supported the measure and first proposed it in his own budget.
“People around here all support me when it comes to roads and bridges and the investments we’ve got to make, but nobody can ever agree on how to pay for anything. So I think this is something that has strong support and I think it’s going to pass,” Lamont said Tuesday.
Removing it from the budget gave Republicans the ability to vote in favor of the two-year state budget, even if they didn’t have a seat at the negotiating table.
“Democrats wanted a consumption tax, they wanted an income tax and the only caucus that stood firm was Senate and House Republicans on saying we don’t need new taxes,” Candelora said.
The reasons additional taxation was unnecessary were a $4.5 billion surplus along with nearly $3 billion in federal funds.
Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-Niantic, said she’s afraid counting on the federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act “will leave us facing a cliff going forward.”
“Being able to come out and discuss what is in effect a no-tax increase package, absent certain items that were moved out of this package, is something that gives me pleasure. I think we have to be able to build on this,” Cheeseman said.
There was a group of progressive lawmakers who still wanted to raise taxes because they fear what will happen when the two years of federal funding dries up.
“As we recover, we have to think long-term. It’s not just tomorrow, it’s not just next year. Long-term, how do we lay the groundwork for a foundation where everyone truly recovers,” Rep. Kate Farrar, D-West Hartford, said.
Farrar and other lawmakers wanted to increase taxes on the wealthy to help create greater income equality.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The state Senate passed the budget bill less than 24 hours later on another bipartisan vote.