Connecticut lawmakers plan to meet for a special session after Thanksgiving to commit more funding to an energy assistance program, increase bonuses for some essential workers and extend breaks on bus fares and the gas tax, House Speaker Matt Ritter said Friday.
That agenda solidified Thursday following a meeting between Gov. Ned Lamont and legislative leaders and comes after both Eversource and United Illuminating informed utility regulators that Connecticut residents will see their electric bills rise more than $80 a month.
The bill will continue free bus fares until April and phase out an ongoing suspension of the state’s 25-cent excise tax on gasoline by restoring 5 cents every month between December and May.
It will dedicate an additional $60 million to a program designed to compensate some private sector essential workers for service during the pandemic. That boost follows a call for closer to $90 million in additional funding made earlier this week by Comptroller-elect Sean Scanlon.
The legislation on which lawmakers expect to vote on will also commit to funding the state’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program at $135 million, roughly where it was funded last year due to federal supplements. At the moment, Ritter said the program was funded at around $102 million.
The additional state funding would only kick in if Congress neglected to provide additional federal support, Ritter said.
“We understand that people are struggling and we’re trying to provide relief but we’re trying to do it in a way that is sustainable and doesn’t drain the special transportation fund and doesn’t create problems two years from now,” Ritter said of the expected legislation. “We’re trying to do it in a fair, sustainable way and I think this is a good compromise.”
The bill is expected to find support on both sides of the aisle. However, that support will come grudgingly from Republicans, who began unsuccessfully calling for additional LIHEAP funding back in August.
House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said that Republicans would likely have issues both with how Democrats intend to supplement LIHEAP and with the additional funding they plan to dedicate to the essential workers program.
“Ultimately, will Republicans vote for it? Probably because you’re not going to throw away the good with the bad, but I think you’re going to see some spirited discussion and potential amendments on this bill,” Candelora said.
Even with a boost in support, the energy assistance program will likely prove insufficient to handle the increased demand of customers struggling with higher utility rates and inflation, Candelora said.
Meanwhile, plans under discussion to supplement another energy assistance program, Operation Fuel, and direct distressed customers to that program will quickly overtax Operation Fuel, he said.
Candelora said legislative Republicans brought their concerns up in August in an effort to change LIHEAP’s income eligibility criteria so that more residents could qualify for assistance. Although adding more funds to the program would help some families, it was too late to extend eligibility, he said.
“When we tried to create new tiers and fix all of this, the Democrats shut us down in committee, wouldn’t even debate it, wouldn’t take a vote and accused us of being political,” Candelora said. “Now the exact concerns that we had have come to fruition and they’re trying to cobble together a solution that is going to fall short.”