- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The General Assembly’s budget-writing committee approved a $43.3 billion two-year spending plan for Connecticut on Tuesday that replenishes funding for local schools, highway rest areas and visitor centers, while laying the groundwork for a higher minimum wage and a new paid family medical leave program.

In a largely partisan vote, the Democratic-controlled Appropriations Committee voted 32-to-17 in favor of the proposal, which spends about $130 million more than Lamont’s proposed two-year budget.

The General Assembly’s Finance Revenue and Bonding Committee could vote Wednesday on a separate revenue package that will address some of the contentious tax changes proposed by Lamont, including one to apply the state’s 6.35% sales tax to additional goods and services. Some Democrats who are members of the Progressive Caucus have called instead for a new surcharge on capital gains income - something Lamont opposes. However, the tax-writing committee voted Tuesday to scrap that idea and instead study it.

Ultimately, Lamont and the Democratic-controlled Legislature must reach a budget compromise that covers a projected two-year $3.7 billion deficit before the legislative session adjourns June 5.

Democratic Sen. Cathy Osten, of Sprague, the Appropriations Committee co-chair, lauded the proposed spending plan as “an honest line-by-line budget.” She said much of the overall spending increase stems from a decision by lawmakers to reverse Lamont’s proposed cuts to local education aid.

The committee’s Democratic leaders said they also support Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposal for cities and towns to pick up part of teacher pension costs - about $73 million. But that measure was mistakenly omitted from the bill, so now it must be dealt with in the upcoming negotiations on a final budget deal. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities expressed disappointment with the concept, saying it would be an enormous unfunded mandate.

The bill also funds staffing at state welcome centers and restores operations at state highway rest areas, which have been closed or scaled back due to recent state budget cuts. Lamont last week told a group of business leaders in New London that he wanted to reopen the state’s welcome centers “because that’s a bit of an embarrassment” for Connecticut. The committee’s spending bill also increases funding for community colleges, Meals on Wheels, job training programs and a new state trooper class.

“It is not extravagant,” Osten said of the proposal.

But Republican lawmakers, who have less influence in this year’s legislative session after losing seats in the last election, disagreed.

“At a time when our state needs to get serious about change, this proposal goes back to the old days of gluttonous spending, political handouts and made up savings that are impossible to achieve,” Sen. Len Fasano, of North Haven, said in a written statement. He predicted the committee’s spending plan will ultimately lead to a tax increase of more than $1 billion.

Republican Rep. Gail Lavielle, the committee’s top-ranking House Republican, voiced concern about how the bill earmarks funds for major, expensive public policy proposals that are still being debated this session, including a plan to eventually increase Connecticut’s $10.10 an hour minimum wage to $15 an hour, and to begin implementing a paid family medical leave system.

Additional Medicaid funding for nursing homes will likely be another area that requires more discussion. More than 2,400 workers at 20 facilities had planned to walk off the job on May 1 if they didn’t receive pay raises. But the members of SEIU 1199 New England announced last week they temporarily rescinded those strike notices as they await the Legislature’s budget deliberations.

Lamont, in a written statement, praised the committee’s efforts and said he looked forward to negotiating with lawmakers over the coming weeks and crafting “a final and honest” budget agreement.

He said: “We are in this together to ensure Connecticut is on a sustainable path forward.”

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