When Connecticut deposits roughly $4.1 billion into its pension funds this fall, it will mark the third consecutive year the state used its budget surplus to whittle down the massive pension debt accrued over more than seven decades.
Connecticut had reported more than $41 billion in combined debt among its pensions for state employees and for teachers following the 2019 fiscal year. According to Pew, that represented 14.8% of Connecticut’s personal income at the time — more than double the national average of 6.8%.
Connecticut was one of just 10 states that topped the 10% mark, and ranked eighth-worst overall. New Jersey finished at the bottom with pension debt equal to 20.2% of statewide personal income.
Motor vehicle fatalities in Connecticut have risen dramatically since the pandemic, echoing a trend that we’ve seen across the country. About 300 people are killed annually on Connecticut’s streets by motor vehicles, and about 100 times as many people (roughly 30,000) suffer injuries severe ePnough to warrant hospital admission.
Nationally, these figures are roughly 40,000 deaths and 3.4 million injuries per year. The U.S. is an outlier among developed countries in the number of deaths that we tolerate on our roads, with a death rate 2 to 3 times that of similarly wealthy countries. The human cost of this carnage leaves no one untouched: almost everyone knows at least one person killed by a vehicle, not to mention millions of others who suffer from life-altering consequences like paralysis and traumatic brain injuries.
If we truly care about saving lives and preventing injuries, we need to change the mindset by which we view the act of driving.
Two Connecticut governors have tried — and failed — to shift some of the massive cost of teacher pensions onto municipalities, arguing it’s inherently unfair for the state to foot the entire bill. Education equity advocates hope to resurrect that debate this year — with a big twist. Rather than trying to bolster the state’s coffers, the Connecticut chapter of Education Reform Now (ERN) wants the state to bill the wealthiest school districts and use at least some of those resources to help the poorest communities.
Connecticut’s second-largest education-related expenditure — about 7% of the General Fund or $1.44 billion this fiscal year — is the required annual contribution to the teachers’ pension fund. That hefty pension contribution consumes resources that normally would be spent on school operations or other core programs in the state budget. For most states, this pension expense is much less. According to ERN, Connecticut is one of only seven states that spare towns from contributing toward teacher pension costs.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing important in the budget. Connecticut is in the midst of a two-year plan to put nearly $6 billion in federal coronavirus aid to work to bolster its schools, health care system, economy, and state and local governments.
While the plan is generating big surpluses in state finances, the jury is still out on the overall Connecticut comeback. And since the state will invariably face a fiscal shock in 2024 — when $6 billion in federal aid has expired — Lamont is cautious about tackling anything more ambitious right now.
The state has the legal maximum in its rainy day fund, $3.1 billion or 15% of annual operating expenses, and already made a supplemental $1.6 billion payment last fall to reduce pension debt.
But with a nearly $2.5 billion surplus projected for the current fiscal year, the state can keep its reserves full, reduce more pension debt and help do more for those hardest hit by the pandemic, Walker said.
Yet an analysis by the CT Mirror shows that more than six out of every 10 federal relief dollars built into the new state budget that began July 1 effectively will wind up in public-sector pension accounts.
And while Gov. Ned Lamont and others insist the new state budget — and the billions Congress sent to Connecticut via the American Rescue Plan Act — will be used to heal the state’s wounds, others question whether the administration’s priorities are askew. Pension debt deserves to be addressed after being ignored for decades, they say, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of the state’s response to a once-in-a-century health and economic crisis.
Analysts project the newly adopted $46.4 billion, two-year state budget will close in July 2023 with $2.3 billion left over — an amount that exceeds the $1.8 billion in federal coronavirus relief built into the budget. Because the state’s rainy day fund already is filled to the legal maximum, those dollars must go into either the pension fund for state employees or the retirement system for teachers.
And that’s in addition to the nearly $6 billion in required pension deposits Connecticut already plans to make as part of the two-year budget. That’s a supplemental payment of more than 35%.
Gov. Ned Lamont helped to hand out more than $1.3 billion on Tuesday by voting to have the state borrow money to pay for various infrastructure projects, state grant programs, improvements at a mental health center in Bridgeport and a new train station in Enfield.
In total, the State Bond Commission, which Lamont leads, agreed to fund more than 50 different projects, programs and initiatives — some of which were championed by state lawmakers who are heading into a campaign season next year and are eager to bring home financial wins to their district.
The more than $1 billion in spending that was approved Tuesday will be financed through state revenue and general obligation bonds, which Connecticut officials market to Wall Street investors and will eventually need to repay with interest.
Connecticut frequently relies on that type of borrowing capacity to finance school construction efforts, capital projects at state universities, transportation upgrades, building maintenance projects, land preservation deals and the smaller community projects that often benefit state legislators. This week’s meeting marked the third bond commission gathering this year.
State legislators largely control the first step in the borrowing process by adopting a two-year bond package, but after that, the governor and the executive branch get to decide what gets funded and when.
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.