The House of Representatives passed a two-year, $46.7 billion state budget deal that lawmakers said will help guide Connecticut as it continues to emerge from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic that left more than 8,200 people dead and double-digit unemployment rates in some communities.
"It's time to press the reset button on those issues," said Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, co-chair of the General Assembly's Appropriations Committee.
"It's time for us to lock arms together and address those issues in the best way.''
The budget was passed overnight Wednesday with a 116 to 31 vote.
In a statement, Gov. Ned Lamont praised the passing of the budget and said. "We have accomplished that with this historic budget."
“The Connecticut House of Representatives deserves to be commended for their diligent work in passing the biennium state budget in a bipartisan fashion," said Lamont. "That is exactly the outcome the people of our state are looking for: they want our elected officials to work together across the aisle and craft collaborative public policy to the benefit of our residents."
The tax-and-spending agreement, reached between Democratic legislative leaders and Lamont, benefits from a massive infusion of federal COVID relief funds and an improving state economy, including historic tax collections. The package includes no new taxes, yet boosts funding for local education, health insurance programs, municipal aid, workforce development, summer camp and learning opportunities for children and expanded day care.
House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said that an unspecified number of his members would likely support the bill, given the lack of new tax increases. Candelora acknowledged he's considering voting for the package as well.
"I lean toward a yes vote, but we are still going through it and having a conversation," he said. "I'm hopeful that at least we could have a bipartisan vote on that budget.''
Much of the day Tuesday was taken up by lengthy debates on two budget-related bills. Shortly after 9 p.m., the House voted 88 to 59 in favor of Lamont's proposed mileage-based "highway-use" fee on tractor-trailers, where the weight of the trucks determines the rate paid. Modeled after programs in New York and Oregon, the tax is projected to generate $90 million annually to help shore up the state's financially troubled transportation fund.
"What are we doing? These truck drivers busted their tails in the last year to support us,'' asked Rep. William Buckbee, R-New Milford. He and other Republicans predicted the fee, which Democrats predicted would be about $10 per tractor trailer traveling across the state, would be harmful to in-state trucking companies and ultimately become an additional cost for Connecticut taxpayers.
But proponents said it's only fair to charge a user fee for the tractor-trailers, given the damage they cause to Connecticut's roads as they deliver goods throughout the Northeast.
"We seem dedicated to giving a free ride to the people of New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts," said Rep. Steve Meskers, D-Greenwich.
Earlier on Tuesday, the House voted 95 to 52, along party lines, for another budget-related bill that extends eligibility for the state's HUSKY health insurance program to an estimated 1,900 young children and 1,400 pregnant mothers without legal immigration status, as well as post-partum care for immigrant mothers.
Rep. Harry Arora, R-Greenwich, argued the legislation would provide people without legal status an incentive to move to Connecticut, at the expense of taxpayers. But proponents said the legislation will ultimately prevent suffering.
"I would venture to say that if we cannot find $6 million to care for young children and pregnant women in a $46 billion state budget, I think we should question our priorities in this building,'' said Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, co-chair of the legislature's Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.
The vote on the budget deal, reached Sunday night between the Democratic legislators and Lamont, comes as time is quickly running out on this year's regular legislative session. The adjournment deadline is Wednesday at midnight. The budget still needs approval in the Senate.
Lamont said the budget, which is balanced with the help of about $1.2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds, could be a "real game-changer" for the state.
"It's a bold, progressive budget and we do this without any tax increases," he said. "That was a promise that I made early on."
While House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, acknowledged that some politically progressive members of his caucus are disappointed that new taxes on wealthy residents to help address long-standing racial and economic inequities are not included, he maintains that the budget agreement does not comprise the party's values. Lamont has opposed proposals such as a new "consumption tax" and a capital gains tax on higher income individuals.
"We feel we've made some critical investments, that people will look back and say, `Those are really good, positive things,''' he said. "I know some people were disappointed on the revenue side, but that case was made and rejected by folks who have a lot of power. And at the end of the day, I think it's a really good budget.''