The atrium of the Legislative Office Building pre-pandemic (CTNewsJunkie file) Credit: Christine Stuart photo

The Appropriations Committee advanced a two-year state spending plan with bipartisan support after vetting the bill for several hours on Tuesday. Here are some highlights from a debate on a budget constrained by stringent fiscal guardrails. 

In a 40-12 vote, the panel approved a $51 billion rebuttal to Gov. Ned Lamont’s $50.5 billion state budget proposal. Although the committee recommended slightly more spending, the two proposals are similar and both fall narrowly beneath a cap limiting how much the state can spend despite an expected $3 billion surplus. Those limitations necessitated tough choices.

Bipartisan apprehension over nonprofit funding

Members of both parties expressed concerns about the plan’s proposed funding levels for a network of nonprofits that provide much of the social services once offered by state government. While the governor’s budget offered no new increases, the committee’s plan provides a 1% boost in the first year and none in the second. 

Given inflation levels, the nonprofits argue that 1% increase represents a 5.5% cut. Those concerns resonated with members of the committee. Many of them pledged to keep pressing for more money. 

“I will … say that to the not for profits that are sitting here and at home, that I will continue to work hard to make sure that it’s more than 1% that you get by the end of this budget cycle,” Sen. Martha Marx, D-New London, said.

Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown, said he had “grave concerns” over whether providers could stay afloat at the proposed funding levels.

“We’re in a state that right now is suffering a historic mental health, addiction and just sort of a funky type of a crisis and the nonprofits have over the years been taking on more and more and more of the load,” Bolinksy said. 

Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said the committee “struggled immensely” with the issue and urged her colleagues to continue calling for additional funding. 

“We think that our nonprofits do essentially God’s work and we lived within the confines of the spending cap that we have but we know we have to deal with issues relative to this population,” Osten said. “I appreciate what you said and I’m certain that all of you will raise your voices loudly with our respective leaders and indicate that this is an area you would like to see change.”

An effort to eliminate ‘slush fund’ of unfilled positions

The committee proposed eliminating nearly 400 unfilled positions within the governor’s administration at agencies including the Departments of Administrative Services, Public Health, Developmental Services, and Revenue Services as well as the Office of Policy and Management. 

Although not all of those positions were funded within Lamont’s proposal, the panel’s chairs called the cuts an attempt to address “excessive lapses” in the personnel services budgets of the Executive Branch. 

“We think that in many ways this has become a slush fund and not necessarily positions that were going to be funding,” Osten said. 

“When we talk about gimmicks in budgets, I think that is one of them,” co-chair Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said. “We’re trying to make the agencies get what they need and make sure we support that, but just having it hidden in personnel services, I think is something we did not feel was worth being maintained.” 

Meanwhile, the committee pushed back against $6.5 million in cuts to the Legislative Branch proposed by the administration to reflect “historical expenditure levels.” Osten said what the governor identified as historical lapses were necessary to fund current services and approved wage increases for personnel already working for legislative management. 

“The Legislative Branch is the Legislative Branch and while the governor often thinks that it’s okay for him to cut the Legislative Branch, it is our decision on whether or not the Legislative Branch should be cut,” Osten said. 

Uncertainty on early voting policy 

The legislature is expected to pass one of three bills to implement early voting after Connecticut voters removed constitutional barriers to the practice through a ballot question last year. 

Legislative fiscal analysts have estimated those bills could cost between $6.9 and $9.2 million, depending on which policy lawmakers choose. Those price tags would increase if policymakers opt to use state funds to offset their considerable costs to local municipalities. 

On Tuesday, the Appropriations Committee recommended just $3.5 million in funding for early voting implementation to be spent during fiscal year 2025. The timing reflects an assumption that state policymakers would not implement the policy in time for this year’s election.

Osten said the early voting funding was part of a budget that was “truly a work in progress.”

“It all depends on what on the policy that the legislature decides to pass on early voting and the budget will be refined to reflect the cost for municipalities and the cost for the state to run early voting,” she said.

Asked if additional funding would need to be appropriated, Osten said it depended on the actions of the legislature. 

“Are they capable of starting it for the municipal elections? I don’t know that yet,” she said.