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CT Construction Digest Wednesday June 9, 2021

Legislature passes highway usage tax on large commercial trucks


The General Assembly approved a new highway usage tax on large commercial trucks to bolster Connecticut’s ongoing rebuild of its transportation network.

The Senate approved the bill 22-14 shortly after 12:30 a.m. Wednesday. The House approved it 88-59 Tuesday afternoon. Democrats hold majorities in both chambers, and the votes went largely along party lines.

The measure, which now heads to Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk, would establish a series of fees based on truck size and miles traveled that would generate about $90 million per year. Fees, which would begin in January, would range from 2.5 cents per mile for vehicles weighing 26,000 to 28,000 pounds to 17.5 cents per mile for trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds. They apply to travel on all roads, not just on limited-access highways, in the state.

The measure does include an exception for trucks licensed to carry milk, providing they are transporting that product to or from a dairy farm.

“Those who use the road, and do the most damage, we’re going to ask them to pay,” said Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.

But Republican legislators countered that the tax, proposed by Gov. Ned Lamont, is going to hinder the state’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m worried that we place yet another burden on businesses,” said Rep. Holly Cheeseman of East Lyme, ranking House Republican on the finance committee. “This is ill-timed, ill-advised.”

“Let’s call it for what it is, a tax on every single person in Connecticut,” added Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol, who predicted it would drive up the prices at grocery stores, which receive most products via truck.

Lamont had pushed for tolls on cars and trucks in 2019, with the goal of generating $600 million per year for transportation, but legislators declined to vote on the plan.

The state’s transportation program appears to be on sound financial footing — provided Connecticut does not intend to accelerate the ongoing rebuild of its aging, overcrowded highway, bridge and rail system.

But transportation officials have warned Connecticut needs to spend hundreds of millions more annually both to maintain a state of good repair and make strategic improvements to alleviate congestion.

According to projections the Lamont administration shared in late April with Wall Street credit rating agencies, the budget’s Special Transportation Fund — which finished in deficit last fiscal year and is barely in balance this year — goes back into the red in 2021-22 unless adjustments are made. And the fund’s emergency reserve would be depleted by 2026.

New projections later this spring from state analysts upgraded STF revenues modestly, but the fund continues to operate on narrow margins.

The STF pays state Department of Transportation operating costs and also covers the debt payments on the $800 million to $900 million Connecticut borrows annually to finance infrastructure upgrades. That borrowing, in turn, allows the state to secure about $700 million in matching federal construction grants each year.

Joseph Sculley, president of the Motor Transport Association of CT, the state’s largest coalition of trucking-related businesses, said the proposed tax “is unworkable and never generates the predicted revenue,” adding it has been tried and abandoned in 20 other states. 

Trucks from out-of-state firms will find new routes to avoid Connecticut, leaving only in-state businesses to pay the tax, Sculley said. He said the levy also will drive up the cost of consumer goods, ultimately weakening the state’s economy.

The truck fees endorsed by the House normally would have been included in the same bill that contains the proposed state budget for the next two fiscal years, which the House also was expected to adopt later Tuesday.

But Democratic leaders, hoping to gain votes for the budget from tax-hike-wary GOP lawmakers, agreed to hold a separate ballot on the truck levy.

Construction of Torrington school will be a statewide effort

Lance Reynolds

TORRINGTON — Hundreds of residents will have an opportunity to help construct the $159 million Torrington Middle/High School after the City Council voted Monday to use union labor for the project.

The City Council voted 3-2 to enter a 10-year project labor agreement with Greater Hartford-New Britain Building Trades Council, a union that represents about 30,000 construction workers statewide. A PLA is a collective bargaining agreement that guarantees construction projects are completed using union labor, while offering construction workers fringe benefits.

Residents approved the grade 7-12 school last November.

A PLA goal is for area residents to make up about 55% of hired construction workers, including 30% from Litchfield County and 25% from Torrington, according to a memorandum of understanding outlining the PLA.

Joe Toner, executive director of the Building Trades Council, said the city could get back $9.6 million if 25% of hired construction workers are local residents. More than 200 city families are affiliated with the Building Trades Council, the MOU states.

Board of Education Chairwoman Fiona Cappabianca, who sits on the building committee, said the estimated 284,295-square-foot school is the largest building project statewide.

“The project is so big that the only companies that have access to a sufficient number of well-trained, well-qualified tradespeople, who will be successful on this size project, are the unions,” Cappabianca said.

The Building Trades Council also will look to recruit 48 to 60 Torrington High School students per year for its apprenticeship programs through 2031. Career fairs will take place at THS to boost those efforts. The first career fair is scheduled for June 26 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the THS gymnasium.

Building Trades officials will work with THS administrators and guidance counselors to select high school students interested in construction and highlight entry-level opportunities, the MOU states.

Councilwoman Sharon Waagner said the PLA will help motivate high school students who are not interested in attending college.

“We have students, maybe not academically gifted, who now will have an opportunity to enter an apprenticeship program,” she said. “That’s a goal to obtain graduation in support of the union and to have a job upon graduation.”

Christopher Fryxell is president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Connecticut, a trade association serving more than 200 construction companies statewide. He warned the City Council to be careful with a PLA.

Bids for a new Middletown High School in the mid-2000s were $17 million over budget, while bids for a renovated high school in Meriden were 13% higher than project estimates in 2013, according to news reports. Both projects used a PLA.

“One thing they do is depress competition,” Fryxell said of a PLA.

Councilman Paul E. Cavagnero supported the PLA and said it’s important to know which specific school officials will be accountable for the success of the apprenticeship programs.

“You need to put someone in charge who has this part of their yearly performance review, that this is one of the things they need to be responsible for, and they are working directly to see these people get what they need,” Cavagnero said.

The project is scheduled to begin in May 2022 and be completed before the 2024-25 school year. Taxpayers face a $65.2 million cost and the state will contribute $93.7 million.

Torrington council approves labor agreement for schools project

Emily M. Olson

TORRINGTON — An approved Planned Labor Agreement for the Torrington schools building project includes a number of conditions, such as annual job fairs and an ongoing apprenticeship program for high school students.

City Council members voted 3-2 on the motion to enter into an agreement with the Greater Hartford-New Britain Building Trades Council for labor for the project

The $159 million building project includes razing the existing Torrington High School, and building a new facility with separate areas for high school and middle school students, as well as shared spaces for meal times and events. The new building also will have an are for a new administrative central office.

Council members Sharon Waagner, David Oliver and Paul Cavagnero voted for the PLA on Monday, while Frank Rubino and Ann Ruwet voted no, both saying they didn’t agree.

Many residents who are members of local unions said having a PLA for the project will guarantee the project gets done on time and on budget, and that it will benefit the community, using local skilled workers. They expressed those views in March during a meeting with the school building committee, and again when they addressed the council Monday.

Waagner said the apprenticeship program would provide students who don’t want to attend college with other opportunities.

The job fairs will be run by the trades group, according to Board of Education Chairman Fiona Cappabianca. Other elements of the agreement will require the group to hold four career fairs a year for the 10-year life of the school construction project. As far as labor goes, 25 percent of those hired must be Torrington workers, and 30 percent from Litchfield County.

“There are 200 building tradespeople in Torrington,” Cappabianca said. “But all of the work is still open to any contractor who wants to bid, as long as they follow the memorandum of understanding. This is a very expensive project, and the building committee is committed to do this. We might as well get something for our students and our town, and using local workers will help.”

Much of the building committee’s efforts have focused on a career pathways program, Cappabianca said, to encourage students to find jobs when they graduate if they choose not to go to college or enter the armed forces. “Up to 60 of our students ... can enter apprenticeship programs every year,” she said. “We’ve never been able to provide that. After the apprenticeship, they’ll enter the trades. They’ll put down roots and stay in our town.”

For some, the project is more personal. Harris McShane, a member of Local 48 for electricians, said he drives an hour each way to a job in Bridgeport. “I drive a long way every day,” he said. “I would love to work on this project.”

Samantha Whittaker and her husband, Trevon, agreed. “If this PLA came to town, he’d be closer to home,” Samantha Whittaker said. “It would be great for my family and the community.”

Chris Frixel, president of the Connecticut Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, said PLAs don’t work well in many cases. “I’m representing the other side,” he said. “It’s not union versus non-union, it’s opportunity for some versus opportunity for all.

“If a PLA is not used, all qualified workers get the chance to work,” he said. “PLA would use all union-only workers. There’s job site fairness. ... This would be a prevailing wage job. As far as a project being on time and on budget, there’s no magic contract that guarantees a project will be done on time. PLAs repress competition, and you’ll get more bids without one.

“The only thing a PLA will ensure is that 100 percent of the workforce on the project is union labor,” he said. “It will not provide a more cost-effective job, a safer job, a better product, or any value whatsoever.”

Council member Paul Cavagnero wanted to know who would be in charge of the career to pathways program. “I want a guarantee of accountability,” he said.

The council set a meeting with the building committee before its next meeting June 24 to see the designs and ask questions.

Will Stamford's dilapidated West Main Street bridge ever be replaced? Board of Reps and city square off

Veronica Del Valle

STAMFORD — An updated crossing in the heart of Mill River Park has been on the docket for almost two decades.

The West Main Street bridge, which cuts across the city’s growing crown jewel, has been closed off to cars for 19 years. A chain-link fence surrounds much of the walkway. There’s always a chance that a particularly gruesome storm could render it useless, despite the fact that about 1,400 people walk across the bridge every day.

And yet, it still stands.

When Stamford’s Engineering Department in May attempted to provide a Board of Representatives committee with an update on where progress stood on the dilapidated bridge, old divisions bubbled up about what could come next when city engineer Lou Casolo laid out his department’s planned course of action.

For the sake of giving pedestrians moving between Downtown and the West Side a safe walkway as soon as possible, Mayor David Martin wants to put a new structure down just north of the old bridge. The endeavor would cost between $185,500 and $300,000, based on proposals from three prefabricated bridge manufacturers.

Technically, the city already has a green light to put a pedestrian bridge in Mill River Park, according to Casolo. Following weeks of public discussion, political debate, and community forums, city representatives in September 2018 voted to move forward with a pedestrian-only bridge by a two-vote margin. And the mayoral administration contends that it doesn’t need board permission to move forward on a publicly bid construction project. With $2 million in the bank from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Mill River Collaborative, Casolo’s engineering department can move forward.

Yet, the idea of putting down a prefabricated bridge without taking care of the 133-year-old structure it’s meant to replace perturbs some representatives.

The board has spent so much energy on a bridge replacement project, they argued, but the new bridge would not solve age-old structural problems.

“In my mind, it would be totally unacceptable to leave a trashed, old bridge that is at risk for being washed away and taking away the new bridge with it,” Rep. David Watkins, R-1, told Casolo. Rep. Virgil de la Cruz, D-2, echoed the same concerns.

There’s not enough money to both take down the existing bridge and put down a new one, according to Casolo. Disposing of the old bridge would cost about $500,000, he told de la Cruz.

Operations Committee Chairman Rep. Jonathan Jacobson, D-12, later told The Stamford Advocate that he plans to ask the city’s law department for a legal opinion on whether the city’s position is valid.

When the engineering department asked for bids on the bridge rehabilitation project, general contractors came back with hefty potential price tags. Engineering consultancy Wengell, McDonnell & Costello initially told the city that bridge rehabilitation would cost $1.58 million, well within the constraints of the DEEP grant. Putting the project out to bid cost just under $200,000, Casolo told The Advocate. But the two bids that came in were for $3.5 million and $5 million, respectively.

During the Board of Representatives committee meeting, de la Cruz insisted that $500,000 isn’t a lot of money in the grand scheme of municipal projects and asked if getting additional funds was possible. Special Assistant to Mayor David Martin Robin Stein jumped in with concerns about the bridge’s historic status.

“That doesn’t mean it cannot come down, but that would be a long and onerous process,” Stein said. That process involves potentially removing the West Main Street Bridge from the National Register of Historic Places — an arduous endeavor that requires approval from the State Historic Preservation Office. If the city demolishes the bridge despite the historic designation, Stein pointed out, the city could face legal challenges from preservationists.

The 1888 bridge, made by the Berlin Iron Bridge Company, was once one of multiple that stretched across the Rippowam River. Local historic preservationist Renee Kahn in 1987 helped put the bridge on the National Register after the others were lost to time and construction projects. In Connecticut, similar bridges are now few and far between.

Rep. Nina Sherwood, D-8, has pushed to save the bridge and restore its vehicular function over the last several years, even in the face of mounting concerns about its structural integrity. Even as Casolo emphasized that the Martin administration wants to move on the project fast, she pushed the engineering department to look to the board for guidance moving forward. Later in the meeting, Sherwood requested that Casolo return to the committee’s next meeting in June with cost estimates on how much every iteration of the bridge — vehicular or pedestrian, new or old — could cost.

“This board has invested a lot of time, and there’s a lot of very passionate feelings on this issue,” Sherwood said. “I think it would be a grave mistake for this administration, even if it doesn’t have to come back to us ... not to come back to us, given the history of this item and how that $2 million was approved.”

On top of the cost constraints associated with preserving the old bridge, Casolo clarified that utility cables also run over the bridge in question, which makes taking down the historic structure a little more precarious.

“That road was the main road through Stanford at the time (it was built),” Casolo said. Specifically, telecommunications wires run over the bridge. “It’s believed that those communication cables have great value, and if they were taken out of service, a lot of people would be impacted.”

Casolo added that putting down a new pedestrian bridge keeps people safe without touching the utilities.

The city’s explanation didn’t satisfy Rep. Jeff Stella, D-9, who also opposes the pedestrian bridge proposal as-is. When the board voted in 2018 to approve a pedestrian-only walkway, the city thought it could preserve the old bridge, Stella said, calling the new solution a “bait-and-switch.”

“We were promised a Mercedes, and now we’re (told) that we’re going to get a Hyundai,” Stella said. “Not that I’m knocking on Hyundai, but at least be honest with it.”

Like Sherwood, Stella has also argued that the bridge should be vehicular again if the mayor opts to restore the old structure.

With nothing new to vote on but discontent brewing among board members about what comes next, the Operations Committee decided to keep the bridge front and center in the committee’s future meetings. After almost four hours of discussion, the committee members voted unanimously to revisit the West Main Street Bridge at their June 29 meeting. Jacobson said he’d try to keep the debate on the agenda for as long as the board saw fit.

Biden ends GOP infrastructure talks, but new group emerges

LISA MASCARO and JOSH BOAK, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden ended talks with a group of Republican senators on a big infrastructure package on Tuesday and started reaching out to senators from both parties in a new effort toward bipartisan compromise, setting a summer deadline for Congress to pass his top legislative priority.

The president is walking away from talks with lead Republican negotiator Sen. Shelley Moore Capito after the two spoke Tuesday, but would welcome her in the new bipartisan group, according to an administrative official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private negotiations.

Shortly after the Biden-Capito talks collapsed, 10 senators huddled late Thursday over pizza — five Republicans, five Democrats — emerging after three hours with some optimism their new effort could create a viable path forward, said a person familiar with the closed-door talks and granted anonymity to discuss them.

At the same time, with anxiety running high as time slips by, Democrats are laying the groundwork to pass some or all of the ambitious package on their own. Biden conferred Tuesday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer about launching the budget resolution process for Senate votes in July, the White House said.

“The President is committed to moving his economic legislation through Congress this summer, and is pursuing multiple paths to get this done,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

The breakdown in the White House's efforts with GOP senators comes after weeks of prolonged infrastructure talks between the president and Capito as the two sides failed to broker the divide over the scope of Biden's sweeping infrastructure investment and how to pay for it.

The Republican senators offered a $928 billion proposal, which included about $330 billion in new spending — but not as much as Biden's $1.7 trillion investment proposal for rebuilding the nation's roads, bridges, highways and other infrastructure, including Veterans Affairs hospitals and care centers.

Biden has proposed raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, a nonstarter for Republicans, and rejected the GOP senators’ suggestion of tapping unspent COVID-19 aid money to fund the new infrastructure spending.

In a statement, Capito said she was disappointed Biden ended the talks, but also expressed interest in ongoing bipartisan work.

“While I appreciate President Biden’s willingness to devote so much time and effort to these negotiations, he ultimately chose not to accept the very robust and targeted infrastructure package, and instead, end our discussions," she said. “However, this does not mean bipartisanship isn’t feasible.”

As Biden aims for a compromise deal, he has begun reaching out to other senators, including Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and two key centrist Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, whose votes will be crucial in the evenly split Senate.

Those senators receiving phone calls from Biden were among the group of 10 assembled with Sinema and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, late Tuesday in Portman's office for what was described as a productive meeting, the person familiar with the session said.

Portman and Sinema have been engaged for months with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, on a sizable infrastructure proposal that is expected to include proposed ways to pay for it.

The senators' group has expanded in recent weeks to include the others from both parties. Romney has described it a “back burner” group, in case the administration's talks with the GOP senators faltered.

Psaki said the president urged the senators in his conversations to continue their work “to develop a bipartisan proposal that he hopes will be more responsive to the country’s pressing infrastructure needs.” Biden tapped Cabinet and White House aides to meet with the senators in person.

Ahead of Biden’s announcement, the White House had also spoken to other lawmakers, including from the House.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., the co-chairs of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, spoke late Monday with Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council, about bipartisan efforts to reach an infrastructure deal, according to an aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.

The Problem Solvers group has agreed to $761.8 billion in new spending over eight years as part of $1.2 trillion plan, according to a draft obtained late Tuesday by The Associated Press. The one-page draft does not include any proposed ways to pay for the package.

Gottheimer is also working with Cassidy and Sinema from the senators’ group, the aide said.

With the narrowly split House and the 50-50 Senate, the White House faces political challenges pushing its priorities through Congress with Democratic votes alone. Biden's party holds a slight majority in the Senate because Vice President Kamala Harris can break a tie.

The special budget rules could provide Biden with an alternative path, particularly in the Senate, because they allow legislation to be approved with a 51-vote threshold, rather than the 60 votes typically needed to advance a bill past a filibuster — in this case, led by Republicans against the Biden package.

Democrats are watching warily as time passes and anxiety builds toward an agreement, with many lawmakers worried they are not fulfilling their campaign promises to voters who put the party in control of Congress and the White House.

During a private discussion of Democratic senators at lunch Tuesday, there were differing views over whether they should keep talking with Republicans or pursue an approach that would allow them to pass a bill on their own, through the budget reconciliation process.

Schumer told reporters afterward that Democrats are pursuing “a two-path approach.”

The bipartisan talks led by Sinema with the other senators are underway, Schumer said, while the budget committee is preparing the legislation that would allow passage through the reconciliation process.

“It may well be that part of the bill that is passed will be bipartisan, and part of it will be in reconciliation,” he said. “But we’re not going to sacrifice bigness and boldness.”

The president is expected to engage with lawmakers while he sets out this week on his first foreign trip for an economic summit of the Group of Seven industrialized nations in Europe.

Construction on Memorial Boulevard Bridge project will start soon

Dean Wright

BRISTOL – Construction on the Memorial Boulevard Bridge project will start soon, according to an announcement made by the City of Bristol.

A news release stated that the project will include the rehabilitation of the Memorial Boulevard Bridge as part of a local and state program. Construction was slated to start June 7 and to be completed around December 2021. Bristol Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu said the city is still waiting on an encroachment permit from the state before road work can begin.

“Bridges are expected to be inspected by the (Connecticut Department of Transportation) every two years,” said Bristol Public Works Director Raymond Rogozinski. “The bridge has been degrading and that’s why there is a need to rehabilitate it. This bridge serves as a kind of gateway to the city so there will be some architectural enhancements.”

The director said a pylon and plaque were in the works to honor the veterans of the city as well as the city’s clock making heritage as part of the architectural enhancements. Paperwork has been submitted to the Bristol Board of Park Commissioners. The director also said ongoing architectural enhancements were being discussed with the Bristol Veterans Council.

The city awarded the project to Trademark Contractors for $2,670,229.75 with inspection services to be provided by WMC Consulting Engineers. Project funding is provided through the state’s local bridge program with 50% federal and 50% municipality shared contributions through a “progressive reimbursement process to the city,” said a release.

Area travelers are encouraged to make note of detours placed during the bridge’s replacement. Closures were set to begin by June 7, said the release.

House adopts $46B budget that avoids tax hikes

Keith M. Phaneuf

The House of Representatives approved a $46.4 billion two-year state budget shortly after midnight Wednesday that avoids major tax hikes, pumps huge new dollars into municipalities and social services and tax relief for the working poor and for restaurants.

The measure passed 116-31, with 22 out of 53 Republicans joining 94 Democrats in the first bipartisan budget vote since 2018. The bill now heads to the Senate.

The budget does not touch Connecticut’s record-setting rainy day fund, but it does rely on $1.75 billion in federal coronavirus relief grants to stay in balance.

And with the regular legislative session approaching its mandatory adjournment at midnight Wednesday, it remains unclear whether lawmakers will need a special session later this summer to resolve other budget issues, including a new two-year state borrowing plan expected to include major new financing to support Connecticut’s poorest cities and towns.

“The pandemic worked every community in Connecticut,” said Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, longtime co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, who battled over the past year both through COVID-19 as well as breast cancer.

“We all have understood pain,” she said, citing more than 512,000 unemployment claims statewide, devastated industries, interrupted education systems and disabled people left isolated without services. “It’s time for us to lock arms together and address those issues in the best way.”

The new budget would spend $22.7 billion in the fiscal year that begins July 1, an increase of 2.6%, before climbing another 3.9% in 2022-23.

At Gov. Ned Lamont’s insistence, the package includes no major tax hikes, though the legislature did approve the governor’s proposal for a new highway usage fee on large commercial trucks through a separate bill. That measure cleared the House on Tuesday and the Senate on Wednesday morning, with Republicans unanimously opposing it in both chambers.

“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,” said Lamont, whose administration negotiated the budget deal with legislative leaders, after the House vote. 

The Democratic governor called it a “historic budget” not only for the lack of tax increases, but also for “making transformative investments across our communities.”

Connecticut has its first bipartisan budget vote since 2018

The new budget “is maintaining all of our important fiscal policies,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. 

That includes not only staying under the statutory spending cap but preserving the state’s budget reserve.

Technically, the rainy day fund, which closed last fiscal year at just over $3 billion, cannot grow much, since it already is equal to 15% of General Fund spending, the legal maximum.

That means most of the $1.4 billion Connecticut projects to have left over when the current fiscal year ends on June 30 would be deposited into its badly underfunded pension programs for state employees or municipal teachers.

Other Republicans still were not comfortable with the new budget.

Rep. Michael France of Ledyard, ranking GOP House member on the Appropriations Committee, voted against the package, saying he wanted to see a leaner spending plan given all of the fiscal chaos Connecticut’s economy has faced over the past year.

“What are we trying to accomplish when we’re coming out of the pandemic?” France said, adding he particularly was disappointed that spending grew nearly 4% in the second year of the budget. “We should have been looking a little more prudently at that.”

Republicans, who haven't held a majority in the House since 1985 nor in the Senate since 1996, had narrowed the margins considerably entering the 2017 session and worked with Democrats to end nine months of political gridlock and adopt a bipartisan budget that year that included many fiscal reforms, including a new savings program that has led to the hefty budget reserve.

Lawmakers from both parties cooperated again in 2018 as they amended the second year of the two-year budget passed in 2017.

But Republicans unanimously voted against the first biennial budget passed during Lamont's administration in 2019. The 2020 session ended early, with adjustments to that two-year package, because of the pandemic.

Tax relief for working poor, big money for cities and towns

Republicans might have unanimously opposed the state budget this year had liberal lawmakers in the House and Senate had their way. Progressive Democrats tried to impose income tax surcharges on Connecticut’s wealthiest households and establish a new digital media ads tax and use the proceeds to provide even more assistance for cities and tax relief for low- and middle-income households.

Still, the budget increases the state Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides $118 million in total refunds to about 194,000 working poor households. The EITC, equal to 23% of the federal income tax credit of the same name, would rise to 30.5% in the new budget, providing an additional $40 million in annual relief.

Progressive Democrats also hoped to secure a nearly $50 million one-time tax break for Connecticut’s pandemic-battered restaurant industry, but that relief was scaled back to $7 million. Restaurants will be allowed, for one week in the 2021-22 fiscal year, to keep seven days’ worth of sales tax receipts.

Corporations didn’t fare as well. While the new budget would expand the research and development tax credit within the corporation tax — saving companies $24 million over the next two fiscal years — previously approved corporate tax cuts worth $180 million and scheduled to take effect in the next two-year budget cycle were suspended.

“Everyone can celebrate the restaurants that got so much hurt in the pandemic,” said Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee, who had also fought for a major relief tax for middle-income households through the creation of a $300-per-child state income tax credit.

That proposal was blocked by the Lamont administration, which argued the state might not be able to afford it two years from now when the federal pandemic relief largely has been exhausted.

But by keeping most taxes flat, and through other features, Scanlon added, the new state budget still provides relief and gives Connecticut’s economy a jump-start in its recovery.

One of the biggest components in the new budget involves a major expansion in municipal aid.

The plan dramatically increases the PILOT [Payments In Lieu Of Taxes] grants that reimburse communities for lost revenue tied to property that is exempt for local taxation.

This would increase by more than $120 million in each year of the budget. It also would expand Education Cost Sharing grants to local school districts by a total of about $140 million over the biennium.

Cities and towns also may be in line for more aid when the legislature adopts a new two-year bond package, though that action might not be completed before the regular session ends Wednesday.

Democratic legislative leaders and Lamont have been negotiating a plan to invest hundreds of millions of dollars annually in capital projects and programs in the state’s urban centers. Though details had not been settled as of late Tuesday, House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said officials had been talking about dedicating about $175 million annually for five years. This would involve a combination of funds borrowed by the state and federal pandemic relief grants.

More funding for nonprofits, and to expand access to health care

Another top priority in the new budget centers on the community-based nonprofit agencies that deliver the bulk of state-sponsored social services in Connecticut.

The industry has not received a major funding increase in more than a decade, and the CT Community Nonprofit Alliance estimates that, after adjusting for inflation, compensation has effectively fallen by $461 million per year since 2007.

The new budget chops into that gap considerably, dedicating an average of about $105 million more per year over the biennium for these agencies.

But the budget stipulates that nearly half of those funds, about $100 million, must effectively be used to resolve a labor dispute involving unionized caregivers at group homes that serve developmentally disabled clients.

More than 2,000 group home workers called off a planned strike at the last minute on June 3 after the Lamont administration pledged to increase funding for wages and benefits. But nonprofit agency owners had assumed the state would assign additional dollars to cover that expense, rather than designate a portion of the industry’s rate increase for that purpose.

“Given the state’s fiscal condition and the size of the projected surpluses, the state has the ability to treat all providers – and the people they serve — equitably,” said Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the alliance.

The new budget also would increase eligibility for low-income residents to receive public subsidies to help buy health insurance on the state’s exchange. The Lamont administration estimated about 30,000 low-income residents would be helped by this initiative.