Even though the state’s coffers, for now, are awash in money, a huge fiscal cliff looms two years from now, when billions of dollars in federal stimulus grants expire.
Despite a record-setting rainy day fund and a new biennial state budget free of major tax hikes, unprecedented unemployment and deep pockets of urban poverty could easily shift Connecticut’s tax fairness debate — which accelerated this past spring — into high gear in 2024.
“We came out of a year from hell, and I think it was really important we came together in terms of our budget,” Gov. Ned Lamont said last Thursday, one day after lawmakers had adjourned a session that adopted a $46.4 billion, two-year state budget that makes big investments in municipal aid, education, health care, social services and economic development — all without major tax hikes.
But about 4% of that plan, nearly $1.8 billion, was propped up by one-time federal coronavirus relief, most of which will have expired after the coming biennium, which starts July 1.
Question: When was the last time a Connecticut legislature was poised to adopt a state budget with a $2.3 billion surplus built into it?
Answer: Never, until now.
Democrats and Republicans alike were expected to vote for the $46.4 billion, two-year package when it goes before the House of Representatives on Tuesday. But even though about 5% of the funds appears to be left unspent, the anticipated surplus would become a payment into the state’s pension accounts.
That’s because the budget, which boosts spending 2.6% in the fiscal year beginning July 1 and by 3.9% in 2022-23, really is the first of its kind under a new system designed to bring stability to state finances.
Connecticut is four years into a savings program that limits spending of income tax receipts tied to capital gains and other investment earnings, but this is the first time since 2017 that analysts are projecting big revenues from Wall Street before legislators actually approve a budget.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “social vulnerability index” has formed the basis for the state’s prioritization system and has been a reliable indicator of low vaccine uptake. Generally speaking, the higher a community’s SVI score, the lower its vaccination rate, a CT Mirror analysis found.
An estimated 32% of the state’s eligible population lives in the state’s priority ZIP codes, and the state aims to administer the same percentage of vaccines within those communities. While the state inches closer to that goal each week, the statewide slowdown in the number of shots administered means that it has a lot of ground to make up. Of all the vaccines administered so far, just 25% of all vaccines distributed as of last week have gone to residents of those ZIP codes.
“Progress is slower now,” said Josh Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer, at a recent press conference.
Connecticut’s neighbors have also prioritized age in their rollouts after prioritizing health care workers and nursing homes, though they have also made teachers, essential workers and people with underlying conditions eligible in tandem at different points in the pandemic. New York announced that teachers and some essential workers were eligible in January along with individuals 75+; Massachusetts included people with co-morbidities in its 65+ rollout in late February. Rhode Island deviated from an age-based strategy around mid-March when it opened up eligibility to teachers, and later to individuals with co-morbidities.
A study of Connecticut’s state government in advance of an expected wave of retirements next year has identified as much as $900 million in potential savings in executive agencies with total budgets of $14 billion, while acknowledging the significant obstacles to making changes in one of the most heavily unionized public-sector workforces in the United States.
The report released Wednesday by the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont says 8,000 of the 30,000 executive-branch employees are eligible to retire by July 1, 2022, when retirement benefits will be reduced under the terms of a 2017 concession deal. A survey found about 70% of the eligible workers were leaning toward retiring.
The highest percentage of expected retirements is among employees responsible for public safety and caring for at-risk children and people with intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses. As such, the exodus poses daunting challenges to maintaining essential services and perhaps offers once-in-a-generation opportunities for fundamental change.
But the state has its terms for success defined backward, said Saad Omer, Yale School of Public Health epidemiologist and the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health. “That’s a process metric,” he said. “It’s not an outcome metric.”
How important is speed in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout? To Connecticut, it’s an important enough consideration to partially justify bucking CDC guidance on prioritizing people with co-morbidities, though experts suggest that it is the best way to prevent deaths in younger populations.
But by rolling out vaccine through an age-based process, the state will effectively de-prioritize younger adults with co-morbidities that put them at higher risk of dying from COVID-19, Omer said, because in those younger age groups, those with existing health issues will be part of a much larger crowd of eligible residents.
Attorneys from three legal aid programs from across the state filed a federal complaint Monday against Gov. Ned Lamont and Connecticut, alleging that its vaccine rollout plan discriminates against residents of color.
The complaint asks the Office for Civil Rights to “immediately investigate and issue findings on an expedited basis” on whether the vaccine rollout discriminates on the basis of race and disability. Attorneys from Connecticut Legal Services, Inc., the New Haven Legal Assistance Association and Greater Hartford Legal Aid asked the OCR to tell Connecticut to revise its vaccine rollout to include people with underlying health conditions that put them at risk of contracting COVID-19, regardless of their age, and individuals who hold jobs that put them at heightened risk of contracting the virus, as identified by the Centers for Disease Control.
The complaint is at least the second filed since Feb. 22, when officials announced the COVID-19 vaccine would be distributed on the basis of age. Disability Rights Connecticut filed a similar complaint days later, claiming the new rollout “constitutes disability discrimination” that violates federal law.
Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday that Connecticut will eliminate capacity limits on restaurants, houses of worship, retailers and most businesses on March 19 but will retain mandates for social distancing and masks as a precaution against a resurgence of COVID-19.
The rollback comes as about 60% of Connecticut residents 65 and older have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, helping to drive down hospitalizations, new infections and deaths to their lowest point in 2021, though still higher than last summer.
The governor’s announcement was expected. It comes after Texas, Mississippi and three other states took more aggressive steps to end mask mandates and business restrictions, a move denounced as premature by President Joe Biden.
Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday he is throwing out the state’s current playbook for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout – which had prioritized people with underlying medical conditions and certain types of workers, such as grocery store and agricultural employees – and is shifting to a system that is strictly age-based, with the next round of shots open to people who are 55 to 64 beginning March 1.
The announcement came just as the state was supposed to open up the next round of vaccines to “essential workers” such as teachers and other school staff, grocery store employees and transportation workers, as well as people 16 and older who have underlying health conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
State officials said teachers and others who work in the schools will still be prioritized in the coming weeks, with special clinics devoted just to those employees. Schools staff is expected to become eligible beginning March 1, with a goal of giving all workers who want a shot access to a first dose by late March.
For some municipal leaders, the state legislature’s 2015 promise to send hundreds of millions of dollars in sales tax revenue to cities and towns is one of the worst examples of fiscal bait-and-switch in Connecticut politics.
And for the Democratic state legislators — who won re-election after making that pledge — the promise is something they’d like to forget.
That’s because the Municipal Revenue Sharing Account, the mechanism through which municipalities would receive a portion of the state sales tax, also has become a recurring pain in the legislature’s side.
The state is closing the two COVID-19 recovery centers for nursing home residents in Meriden and Torrington because the number of infections has fallen to the point that they are no longer necessary.
“Athena Health Care Systems was pleased to partner with the state of Connecticut to operate COVID recovery centers in Meriden and Torrington to help some of our most vulnerable patients recover as well as keep our nursing home residents safe,” Athena Director of Marketing Timothy Brown said.
“We are pleased to say that we are now able to close both recovery centers. It really is positive news — it means that things are going in the right direction when it comes to this pandemic and that the recovery center model has worked.”