House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, implored the different parties involved in state budget negotiations to come back to the negotiating table, and fast, during a news conference Tuesday.
Ritter repeatedly expressed frustration that there were no imminent scheduled meetings regarding the budget between Gov. Ned Lamont’s office and legislative leaders as of Monday morning.
“Right now there’s no meeting scheduled today I don’t know why, there’s no meeting scheduled tomorrow, I don’t know why,” Ritter said. “We can’t be slow-played, so at some point we have to take action. It’s not a threat, but among allies and friends, we have to get this done.”
Ritter and House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said negotiating parties need to resolve any differences within the next 48 hours due to the session’s scheduled end on June 9.
“I think one of the misconceptions in the public is that we can cut a deal at the 11th hour and have a budget in hand, and obviously we can’t,” Ritter said.
Still, he said lawmakers are “very close to having a deal in hand” that seeks compromise between progressives, moderates, Lamont and Republicans.
The proposed $46 billion, two-year budget has been praised by Democrats as one investing in racial equity as well as Connecticut municipalities, nonprofits and schools without accessing the rainy day fund. Republicans have generally opposed the budget, arguing that it includes hidden taxes and finds a way around the spending cap.
Last week, state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, highlighted three major disagreements with the governor on spending: the state’s Education Cost Sharing fund, pension obligations and funding for municipalities.
Progressive lawmakers have lobbied for the state to access at least a small amount of its rainy day fund to assist with the negative educational, societal and financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic rather than focusing only on paying down pensions. Analysis from the Connecticut Center of Economic Research released this month advised the state to spend federal money and reach into its rainy day fund to stimulate the economy.
Lamont’s office has sought to avoid alarming would-be wealthy newcomers to the state. The governor has stayed solid on his refusal to raise taxes, even on the state’s most wealthy, Ritter indicated Tuesday, noting that Lamont made concessions in other areas. The moderate wing of Lamont’s party, as well as many Republicans, support his goal of forgoing tax increases. But progressives and Democratic leaders such as state Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, have said they’re seeking a more progressive income tax structure.
According to Ritter, all of the relevant parties have made concessions. He acknowledged that Lamont “has come a long way on the spending side and the bonding side” but “We’re sort of mired down in one or two issues.”
The main issue, he said, is related to the Municipal Revenue Sharing Account, known as MRSA, which is how the state is paying for its payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, program for municipalities. The state raised the sales tax by 1% in 2015 with the intention of half of the revenue generated from that increase going to the Special Transportation Fund and the other half going to municipalities. Democrats are arguing for this money not to be included in the budget, as has been the case in recent years, so as to stay under the spending cap, and instead mark MRSA as used for designated services. Lamont and Republicans are generally opposed to exceeding the cap, no matter any creative solutions.
“If we leave it off-budget, then it’s less likely to be diverted into the general fund of the budget,” Osten said last week. “It’s not a gimmick, in my opinion it’s the right way to do it, and if we are serious about giving towns additional PILOT dollars, then we need to make sure that we’re funding those dollars.”
Ritter supports putting MRSA outside of the budget.
“Everybody knew if you put it in the cap, it would crowd out and it would take away from our goal of fully funding the Hartfords, the Bridgeports, the New Havens, East Hartfords and Waterburys who so desperately need this state funding to avoid raising property taxes every year, which is the most regressive tax in the state of Connecticut,” Ritter said Tuesday.
Ritter confirmed that the House would introduce the budget without a predetermined deal if such a deal isn’t reached by negotiating parties in the next 24 to 48 hours.
“It’s very, very, very frustrating that we’re stuck on something we should be able to resolve,” he said. “We sit here on June 1st with one or two things undecided, and we didn’t have any real constructive conversations over the weekend. I’m just saying to the world that I’m not mad, but we have an obligation to the voters to deliver them a budget on time.”
When asked about progress on the governor’s recreational cannabis bill, Ritter noted that with the budget not yet figured out, “it just puts a hold on so many other bills.” Rojas said he’s been speaking with members individually about the bill, and there were a lot of “maybes.”
“We went into the session knowing the vote would be extremely close, and it remains extremely close,” he said. “If we’re able to finalize language, which we’re hoping to do today, I’ll be able to present something that’s more complete to the members so they can react to a more complete package.”
He said if there is a vote in the Senate, it likely will take place later this week.