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.
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.
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.
But the governor’s announcement Monday — which ironically was made the same day the national Food Industry Association celebrated “Supermarket Employee Day” — shifted to a priority system that is strictly age-based, with one exception: school employees and child care providers. The next round of shots will open March 1 to people who are between ages 55 and 64, teachers and others who work in schools, and day care workers.
Besides grocery story workers, the administration also had been considering giving priority in this next phase to transportation workers, as well as people 16 and older who have underlying health conditions like heart disease and diabetes, and teachers and other school staff. Only the last group is being given priority in Lamont’s new plan.
In announcing a surprising new vaccine distribution plan Monday, Gov. Ned Lamont said Connecticut’s approach was designed with two factors in mind: speed and equity.
“Broadly speaking, these are our goals for vaccination,” Lamont said. “Get as many people vaccinated as we possibly can … and complement that with equity, knowing full that our Black and brown population here in this state and around the country are twice as likely to suffer complications from an infection and half as likely to get vaccinated.”
But experts are divided on whether the new strategy will truly accomplish those goals — and particularly whether it will truly maximize equity. While state and hospital officials say this plan, which establishes priority groups almost strictly by age, will create a smoother, faster rollout, skeptics worry the new eligibility guidelines are not as inclusive as those the Lamont administration jettisoned.
Urban Democratic lawmakers attacked Gov. Ned Lamont’s new budget proposal Thursday, charging the two-year package does little to nothing to reverse long-standing gaps in education, health care and economic opportunity.
During a two-hour hearing with Lamont’s budget director, the governor’s fellow Democrats on the Appropriations Committee also questioned whether the $46 billion biennial package sets Connecticut up for another budget crisis after the next state election.
“I am so disappointed in this budget when it comes to human services,” said Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden. “Again, here we are, balancing a budget on the backs of our most vulnerable.”
Connecticut is already struggling amid an economic downturn. Imposing a significant tax increase simply chops any chance of recovery off at the knees and harms working families with a regressive tax at a time when few can afford it.