Lamont details ‘transformative’ pandemic spending plan

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An ambitious multi-billion-dollar plan for COVID relief, public health, job training and programming for children including free summer camps and admission to major state attractions including the Norwalk Maritime Museum and Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo, is the focus of Gov. Ned Lamont’s multi-year plan on the use of federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act.

“Our proposal places a special emphasis on equity, investments in children and families, and making our state even more prepared in the event of another public health emergency or crisis,” Lamont said in a statement.

As many as 15 state agencies are involved in the planning for the influx of federal support, about $1.75 billion of which would be used to balance the two-year budget that starts July 1.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget chief, Melissa McCaw presented the governor’s nearly $6.3-billion plan during an hour-long presentation Monday morning, admitting that it will become the center of negotiations with legislative leaders over the next month, with a May 16 deadline on an agreement.

McCaw said the proposal is working on a parallel track with the two-year $46-billion legislative budget that passed two General Assembly committees last week.

“I do believe that the legislature will be looking to address some of their priorities through these funds, as they should,” McCaw said. “This is a significant amount of resources, a one-time-in-many-decades experience for the states.”

The core of Lamont’s attempt to help the state recover from the pandemic includes a nearly $40-million expansion of broadband internet in under-served communities; enhanced childcare opportunities; bonus payments for childcare workers and nursing homes employees; more money into the state’s unemployment trust fund; and summer jobs for teenagers.

Also proposed are needs-based scholarships for community college students; a wide expansion of mental health services; rental, eviction and foreclosure assistance; $10 million on top of $40 million Lamont has already freed up for local health districts; better access to contraceptives; health insurance subsidies; new community-based attempts to stop gun violence; retraining for thousands of people to rejoin the state workforce; and energy retrofitting for houses.

“It’s a plan that goes across policy areas that focus on the individual throughout the state, from the youngest child to the school-aged child to the college student who might be struggling, to those, whether you’re young or seasoned who might have challenges with mental or behavioral health,” McCaw said, adding that economic development is part of the overall strategy.

“Whether it is through the lens of the individual person, the lens of a family, to the lens of a municipality, all components are critical for a transformative, equitable and healthy recovery for our state,” McCaw said.

McCaw, as secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, admitted that there remain major questions on whether use of at least $2.7 billion could exceed the state’s spending cap, a concern that was echoed by House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford.

“The spirit of the spending cap is to prevent growth in a budget cycle over what it can afford,” Candelora said. “While it may technically or not impact the spending cap, it certainly should, from a practical standpoint. The fact is, we are going to see a cliff two years from now. So everybody is sort of enjoying the big party, for lack of a better analogy, but there is going to be a massive hangover 10 years from now if we don’t pay attention to how we are actually spending that money.”

Candelora, speaking to reporters outside the House chamber, said that the governor’s proposal comes on the heels of last week’s Democratic budget documents approved in the both the Appropriations Committee and the Finance Committee, which plans on raising taxes by about $2 billion, including higher taxes on the state’s wealthiest.

“We have over a billion dollars of federal surplus money to essentially apply to COVID relief, so as we march forward, we need to recognize that Connecticut has a competitive edge,” said Candelora noting more than $3 billion in emergency reserves, as well as a recent improvement in the state’s bond rating.

“We are supportive of a lot of the provisions that the governor has provided, but we hope that as it gets reconciled with the budget, we will see a very different revenue plan put forth,” Candelora said, stressing that he was encouraged by Lamont’s educational and mental health initiatives. He believes more money should be put in the state’s unemployment trust fund to make it easier on employers.

“What we are concerned about is making sure that our children are appropriately assessed going into this summer, so we know how each individual child, what their needs are educationally and socially and for mental health, so not only are they attending summer camps, but they are attending the most-appropriate summer camps for their needs,” Candelora said, stressing transportation services as well.

Candelora warned that the influx of federal funding could set up the state for a financial shock - and massive deficit - in the middle of the decade when the support from Washington dries up, leaving a possible $1.7-billion hole in the state budget.

Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, during a news conference with reporters before the House session on Monday, said that pending a detailed review, some initiatives proposed by the governor including child daycare and free summer cap are important. “I saw money in there for housing, which I liked, including the right-to-counsel, which will be a big deal,” Ritter said, noting that as the eviction moratorium is eventually lifted, more tenants will need attorneys.

Ritter expects continued increases in tax-revenue reports that should emerge from state budget experts this week. He recalled that several weeks ago, the General Assembly passed a bill that gives them an important, coequal role in the distribution of the APRA funding.

House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, supported Lamont’s proposed $100-million investment in workforce training.

Also on Monday, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities announced a working group to explore ARPA issues, including the analysis of funds, the identification of possible projects, and using money to generate possible future revenue.

“There is no doubt that this committee will help ensure the most effective and efficient use of these historic federal funds for the benefit of Connecticut towns and cities and their property taxpayers,” DeLong noted.

Towns and cities expect to receive about $1.56 billion for general government and $995 million to schools for schools. Twitter: @KenDixonCT