Lamont unveils ‘comeback’ budget as state emerges from COVID

February 9, 2022 GMT
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Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, center, reflected in a COVID-19 protection barrier, delivers the State of the State address during opening session at the State Capitol, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
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Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, center, reflected in a COVID-19 protection barrier, delivers the State of the State address during opening session at the State Capitol, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Gov. Ned Lamont, delivering a rosy election-year speech, unveiled a $24 billion budget proposal that includes tax cuts, financial help for entrepreneurs, more funding for mental health services and new staff to oversee the state’s plans for spending billions of dollars in anticipated federal infrastructure funding.

The Democrat proclaimed Connecticut is in “much better shape” than when he first took office three years ago, managing to reverse massive budget deficits and emerge from a pandemic that killed more than 10,000 in the state.

“Three years ago, we were standing at the edge of a fiscal cliff, facing a $3.7 billion budget deficit, and today we are deciding what taxes to cut or school programs to grow, thanks to our third consecutive year of budget surpluses,” Lamont told state lawmakers on the opening day of the 2022 legislative session.

Lamont credited the state’s improving fiscal situation, boosted in part by a massive infusion of federal pandemic-relief funds, with enabling him to propose tax reductions this year. He has called for increasing the local property tax credit against the income tax, speeding up the planned pension and annuities exemption and lowering a cap on local car taxes, among other changes.

Republicans, the minority party in the General Assembly, have called for cutting the state sales tax, arguing taxpayers need immediate help to combat inflation.

“The middle class today is struggling. They have a 40-year high in inflation, and so relief must be present today, too,” said Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford. “That’s why a sales tax cut is better because it brings that relief to all taxpayers now. What the governor and the majority are proposing is relief of tax credits next year.”

Bob Stefanowski, Lamont’s probable GOP opponent in November, was at the Capitol briefly for the governor’s address. In a written statement, he criticized Lamont for proposing property tax relief “when he’s looking for their votes again.”

“Governor Lamont has completely lost touch with the issues facing the residents of Connecticut,” Stefanowski said. “Optimism is important, but it also needs to be based in reality.”

Lamont’s budget proposal received criticism from organized labor, with leaders of the Connecticut AFL-CIO saying the plan falls far short of what’s needed to help frontline essential workers. Also, financially struggling community nonprofit agencies said Lamont’s budget doesn’t provide enough funding to ensure they can keep operating.

“Simply put: the Governor’s status quo approach to state budgets is not enough,” read a news release from the Recovery for All Coalition, which supports pandemic pay for all essential workers and historic public investments in education, health care, housing and social services.

Lamont’s hopefulness Wednesday extended to the pandemic as well. He credited the state’s relatively high vaccination rate and declining COVID-19 infection numbers with his call this week to end the statewide mask mandate in schools and child care centers on Feb. 28 and allow local officials to decide whether masking is necessary.

“From a public health perspective, you’ve earned this freedom. I know that we can do it safely,” said the governor.

His recommendation, however, was met with mostly silence from the General Assembly, which is tasked with voting on whether to extend 11 of Lamont’s pandemic-related executive orders in the coming days. Some lawmakers think it’s too early to lift the statewide mandate while others oppose the idea of allowing local mask mandates.

Meanwhile, chants from more than 100 protesters outside the state Capitol, some holding signs demanding an end to pandemic restrictions, could be heard in the chamber during Lamont’s address. It was a smaller crowd compared to last year’s opening day of the session, when about 500 people turned out.

Both Democratic and Republican legislators expressed hope that things are finally starting to normalize at the state Capitol and in Connecticut.

“It’s good for us to now start out again and try to look to coming out of this pandemic and trying to get this building back to normal,” said House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford.

Although most lawmakers gathered indoors for Wednesday’s ceremonies, pandemic restrictions remain at the state Capitol. Legislative committees are expected to meet remotely through at least the month of February and members of the public are only allowed on the first floor, wearing masks.

House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, stressed how the General Assembly still has a lot of work to do when it comes to COVID-19.

“While the pandemic seems to be easing and we’re increasingly optimistic about what the future holds for us, we know that there’s so much work to be done as the pandemic continues to impact our families, our schools, our business communities in ways direct and indirect,” he said. “This session, we must focus on looking ahead while working in a bipartisan fashion to respond to the lingering impacts of the pandemic, impacts that will be felt for years to come.”