Legislative Republicans submitted roughly 50 signatures to the Secretary of the State on Monday, an incremental step towards forcing an election year special session to pass legislation offsetting reductions in federal funding for a low-income energy assistance program.
The lawmakers staged a morning press conference in the state Capitol building’s Hall of Flags to highlight their ongoing efforts to gather signatures, which they began collecting earlier this month after the legislature’s majority Democrats approved a plan from Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration to dole out the federally funded Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
The program, which had been bolstered by pandemic-era supplemental funding, dropped from about $140 million last year to roughly $79 million this year. The Republicans have proposed to tap a state account of federal funding to boost this year’s LIHEAP budget by $120 million.
But in order to petition a special session, more than 50% of the lawmakers in both chambers must sign on and the signatures submitted Monday fall far short of that threshold. House Republicans gathered around 40 of the necessary 76 signatures. Senate Republicans submitted 10 of the necessary 19. Both caucuses would need Democratic support to force a special session.
“We still have petitions that are straggling in,” House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said. “We’re filing them now and holding this press conference now to give Democrats an opportunity to know we have started this process. We have until the end of September. We need them to join in.”
Candelora and Kelly said the urgency stems both from deadlines for a successful petition and the beginning of the application period of LIHEAP benefits.
“We’re asking Democrats to join us, to find it in their hearts to sign onto the petition to do what we do under this Capitol dome and that is bring help to people in need,” Kelly said.
This year’s LIHEAP funding has become an unusually charged debate as Republicans have sought to use the program to support a campaign theme that Connecticut has become unaffordable after years of Democratic control.
Meanwhile, Democrats in the legislature and the governor’s office have called the proposal to supplement the program “premature” as it could yet be boosted again by the federal government.
Last month, three members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation — U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy as well as U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney — were among a group of legislators who wrote to congressional appropriations committees asking for an emergency increase in the energy assistance program.
“In a normal year, LIHEAP plays a critical role in offsetting burdensome heating and cooling costs that strain the budgets of financially vulnerable Americans,” the lawmakers wrote. “However, this winter, LIHEAP will be more important than ever in helping families afford their energy bills. We urge you to help states prepare for a particularly tough winter ahead by appropriating emergency supplemental funding for this critical program.”
As increased federal funding remains uncertain, state Democrats have accused Republicans of using the program as a political football. In a statement earlier this month, Senate President Martin Looney and Majority Leader Bob Duff called the GOP push for a special session a “cynical” campaign strategy.
“We wish that the Republicans had expressed this level of interest in budgeting during any of the last four years when they never proposed a budget. Unfortunately, Connecticut Republicans only seem interested in budgets during election season,” Looney and Duff said.
In their Sept. 1 statement, the Senate Democrats said the legislature may be back in session prior to Dec. 1 in order to consider the expiration of a temporary law suspending a state tax gasoline tax and providing free bus fares.
“Those and other issues which may present themselves may be addressed after the election in an atmosphere of governing rather than that of a political campaign,” Looney and Duff said.
The governor has argued the program could be supplemented when the legislature’s next regular session begins in January, if the winter proves severe. On Monday, his spokesperson Anthony Anthony said Lamont supported a Biden administration request to increase the program, and believed it was too early to consider redirecting funds from state accounts.
“Should Senator Kelly and Rep. Candelora want to take action on affordability and home heating assistance, they should implore their Republican counterparts in congress, Senator Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, to accept the President’s request for $500 million additional dollars on top of existing home heating assistance funding,” Anthony said.
Kelly and Candelora argued the issue would not wait until after the November election.
“The program is beginning now. We want to have a conversation about expanding eligibility so if that doesn’t happen until December, it’s too late to help,” Candelora said.