Lawmakers extended a suspension of Connecticut’s gas tax, supplemented funding for energy assistance and set aside more money for an essential workers’ bonus pay program during a special legislative session on Monday.
Both chambers of the state legislature passed a single, 28-page bill in bipartisan votes in back-to-back sessions. The House approved the legislation 134 -7 with seven Republicans in opposition. The Senate gave the bill final passage on a 33-0 vote later that night.
During a debate on the floor of the House of Representatives, Rep. Sean Scanlon, a Guilford Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s tax-writing committee, said the bill was an effort to reduce the financial burden on Connecticut families.
“We are going to continue some of the work we’ve been doing to try to lower costs for our constituents here in the state of Connecticut who are dealing with this global inflation crisis,” Scanlon said.
The emergency-certified bill now heads to Gov. Ned Lamont for a signature just three days before the scheduled expiration of the tax holiday on the 25-cent excise tax on gasoline, which has been suspended since April. Rather than reapplying the tax on Dec. 1, policymakers opted to extend the holiday through the end of the year then restore 5 cents per month until the tax is fully reinstated. The bill also extends until April an initiative providing free bus fare.
Republican lawmakers felt the state could do more.
“There’s nothing wrong with short term solutions and plans as long as they’re equal to the magnitude of the short term crisis and pain that we face and also coupled with long term solutions to the underlying problems,” Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, said. “I fear that we can do more in order to both address the underlying cost of living and energy costs we face in this state as well as provide a short term solution to alleviate the pain our constituents face.”
Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, said he would support the bill, but called it “symptomatic management.”
“Why is it when the oil companies make their profit the taxpayers have to pay for it?” Anwar said.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff said they don’t have control over global energy prices, but they can help provide some relief at the pump.
“We’ve worked hard to make Connecticut more affordable,” Duff said.
Another provision of the bill increases funding for the state Premium Pay Program from $30 million to $105 million. The program provides bonus pay for certain essential private sector workers for service during the pandemic. Lawmakers originally hoped the program would provide bonuses of around $1,000 for some workers.
But it proved more popular than expected when it was adopted earlier this year. More than 155,000 employees have been deemed eligible for the benefits, leading to smaller, pro-rated benefits. At its new funding levels, the program will provide bonuses ranging from $1,000 for approved employees making less than $50,000 to $100 for those making less than $150,000.
Many Democrats thought the amount was not enough and promised to address the issue in the 2023 session.
The bill will also delay a requirement that bottle deposit charges be printed on beverages which will be subject to the charge for the first time beginning in January.
Earlier this year, lawmakers added hard ciders and seltzers as well as coffee drinks, sports drinks, and energy drinks to a slate of drinks requiring a bottle deposit. The legislation passed Monday seeks to allow retailers to sell off their existing inventories of the beverages which do not already have the charge printed on their packaging.
Other changes in the bill aim to blunt the impact of rising utility and energy costs. Lawmakers voted to bolster funding to the state’s federally-funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program by more than $30 million if Congress does not act to provide more money.
Though the bill passed with strong bipartisan support in both chambers, Republicans objected to elements, including the bolstered premium pay program, and said other provisions like those affecting heating assistance and the gas tax did not go far enough.
During a press conference outside the hall of the House, Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said the legislation included ideas pushed by Republican legislators earlier this year. Kelly and other Republicans called for continuing the suspension of the gas tax until the end of the fiscal year in July.
“There’s no reason to ask taxpayers to fork up more money when we’re sitting on $2.8 billion of surplus funds in the current budget,” Kelly said.
Saying he would not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, Kelly voted in favor of the bill.
During floor debates in both chambers, Republicans proposed changes to the bill which would have extended the full tax holiday and further boosted LIHEAP funds. The amendments were all unsuccessful.
House Speaker Matt Ritter told reporters the bill was crafted to offer sustainable relief that did not put a long-term burden on the state’s special transportation fund. During a late morning press conference, Ritter pointed to Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski, who had campaigned on using the state’s budgetary reserves to offer additional tax cuts.
“We just kinda litigated this whole issue. Voters had a chance to weigh in,” Ritter said. “The amendment today is, let’s do the whole thing until June 30, well that was a platform that somebody ran on and got 42% of the vote… [The bill includes] sustainable policies that benefit people. That’s the difference between reckless amendments that you can’t pay for.”