House Speaker Matt Ritter and Majority Leader Jason Rojas during a press availability on Jan. 25, 2023. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Democratic leaders in the House tempered the expectations of advocates seeking state funding to pay for school lunches during a Wednesday press conference in which they sought to rein in legislators publicly calling for additional state spending.

Before approving a new state police contract and a handful of executive nominations on Wednesday, House Speaker Matt Ritter and Majority Leader Jason Rojas were asked about the possibility of emergency certifying funding to pay for breakfast and lunch meals at public schools for the rest of this school year. 

A coalition of lawmakers and advocacy groups began pushing earlier this month for state action to fill a void left by a federal program that fed school children throughout the pandemic. Ritter said he was open to the concept and expected it to be among the spending priorities discussed later that day in talks with Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration. 

“We’re open to the conversation,” Ritter said. “The districts kinda got hit hard because of the change in the middle of the fiscal year,” when previously allocated federal funding ran out.

But Ritter’s response also revealed a degree of frustration with lawmakers, including fellow Democrats who have sought to drum up support for competing spending priorities as state policymakers begin the process of crafting a two-year budget. 

Through recent press conferences, lawmakers had already called for spending “two trillion dollars,” Ritter said. Those calls made the work of the legislature’s budget-writing panels more difficult, he said. 

“I gotta say, there are some people in this building — in our party — who just run around and do a press conference and say ‘500 million here, a billion there, two billion there.’ And what that does to [Appropriations Committee co-chairs] Toni [Walker] and Cathy [Osten] … and the leadership is completely unfair,” Ritter said.  

“[S]ometimes it’s just easy to say ‘I’m going to spend it,’ and it’s really unfair to the Approps chairs. It really is,” he said. “It’s got to stop in this building.”

Advocates with End Hunger CT! and School Meals 4 All CT began building a coalition of support for committing state funds to pay for school lunches late last year when a $30 million pot of federal money the state had dedicated to continuing the program began to run dry. 

After the legislative session began, Sens. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, and Ceci Maher, D-Wilton, hosted a press conference where supporters said student participation in meal programs had declined since the expiration of the free meal initiative. 

On Wednesday, Ritter said it would cost between $30 and $50 million to pay for the program for the duration of the school year then around $90 million per year going forward. Although he said he was open to the idea, Ritter said the legislature had other school-based proposals to fund including increases to the education cost-sharing grants the state provides to towns in order to offset the cost of operating schools. 

Ritter and Rojas said they would like to see wealthier towns help to pay for the free school meals initiative. Many towns still had federal pandemic relief funds available, they said.

“We’ll have a conversation but it would be only to address this fiscal year and I think we’re also looking at some of the more affluent communities that have money, could they put a portion of the funding in,” Ritter said.

“Or fund it all together,” Rojas said. “I mean, to expect that the state should cover this when we know it’s such a priority at the local level, I think some questions need to be raised at boards of education about why they’re not funding it.”

During a separate press conference, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said he was sympathetic to the concept, but had not heard a request to continue the program from towns in his district.

“Part of the rub is the fact that everyone is being given those services regardless of whether they could afford it or not,” Candelora said. “Going into this budget cycle, we’re seeing mass layoffs yesterday. We’ve got to be very careful in how we’re going to spend our money going forward.” 

In a statement, Lucy Nolan, policy director for End Hunger CT!, said her coalition was disappointed that the legislature had yet to continue no-cost meals for students.  

“Based on reports from school districts across the state, meal counts are down and meal accounts are in the red. Parents and people who work with students tell us that many students are simply not eating,” Nolan said. “While we understand the need to work through the legislative processes, the fact is students across the state are going hungry today.