Lamont’s new $46 billion funds focuses on defeating COVID

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Defeating COVID-19 tops the priorities in Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont’s new two-year, $46 billion state budget proposal unveiled Wednesday, with plans to continue rolling out testing and vaccinations, to provide interim rate increases for nursing homes, and to give financial support for health care providers, all while keeping schools open.

In a 25-minute virtual message to the General Assembly, the Democrat explained bluntly why crushing COVID still remains the No. 1 issue: “Because if we don’t, nothing else matters,” he said.

Lamont’s proposed budget predicts it could take several more months before there is widespread accessibility and herd immunity in Connecticut. That means pandemic-related expenses, as well as lagging state revenues, could stretch beyond the current year.

“COVID-19 continues to throw wild cards into the deck, but the federal government is getting much closer to deciding how it will support our state and local municipalities,” Lamont said in his address. “Connecticut will have to remain agile in meeting these changing circumstances, but that being said, I would not change our hand with any other state in the country.”

Lamont said Connecticut is currently “one of the best-positioned states in the country,” noting the steps his administration has taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and how the state has “begun to find its economic footing.”

Recent projections show Connecticut may end the current fiscal year with a small budget surplus. The state also still has about $3.5 billion in budget reserves.

Lamont acknowledged, however, the state’s budget is still “burdened” with high fixed costs, including large pension liabilities. Also, while the budget plan closes a nearly $4 billion two-year budget gap in fiscal years 2022 and 2023, there are still deficits projected in the following two-year budget.

However, the Democrat said there are no broad-based tax increases or changes to income or sales tax rates in his budget proposal.

Rather, the governor is hoping that the state’s economy will continue to improve and that the Biden administration and Congress will ultimately approve “unrestricted aid to the states” to help cover the drop-off in revenues that’s due to the pandemic. If the federal funds don’t materialize, Lamont has recommended partially drawing down the state’s budget reserves.

Lamont said other priorities of his plan include making the state more affordable for the middle class; investing in infrastructure, including expanding broadband access; modernizing state government; and fostering economic growth.

“We don’t have the luxury of doing one thing at a time. There’s too much at stake,” the governor said. “While my administration will continue to be laser focus on managing the COVID-19 crisis, we must focus on the light at the end of the tunnel.”

His budget also assumes the state will finally legalize sports betting and internet gambling, as well as recreational use of marijuana for adults, proposing that the money from pot would benefit distressed communities.