Unfinished Business Piles up at the Connecticut Capitol

Connecticut State Capitol. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

Transportation, nursing home funds, bonding limits all need attention.

By Keith M. Phaneuf, CTMirror.org

Since the regular General Assembly session wrapped on June 5, lawmakers have said they’d be back this fall to tackle unfinished business.

A legal settlement with the hospital industry and a new state bond package have been on the to-do list since early June. Not long after that, Gov. Ned Lamont made it clear he wanted another crack at a long-term plan to rebuild transportation infrastructure.

And, as the summer waned, restaurant wages, payments to nursing homes, and a potential ban on vaping cropped up.

And now, with two months left before the winter holiday season brings new scheduling challenges, Lamont and legislators are struggling to solve a Rubik’s Cube of policy issues and agree on an agenda they can adopt in special session this fall.

Legislators from both parties want a state bond package resolved soon, especially because tied up within that are key grants for cities and towns.

They also want to reverse a cut in funding for nursing homes with high vacancy rates.

Lamont says the bond package is fine, it should be on the agenda – and nursing homes at least can be discussed – provided legislators are ready to craft a long-term plan to rebuild highways, bridges and rail lines. 

This may or may not include a discussion of tolls, an issue that lawmakers balked at earlier this year.

The governor also wants an immediate ban on flavored vaping products. And if he cannot impose one unilaterally, he wants legislators to do so. But some key lawmakers say that’s fine, provided the governor is ready to approve a bonding package.

A package that works

House Democrats and Republicans in both chambers have pushed for changes to rules governing wages of restaurant employees who work for tips. The governor, who vetoed one bill to make those changes, also says there’s a compromise option ready to go. But Senate Democrats haven’t endorsed that option yet.

“I’m not too worried that there are linkages and a lot to do,” said House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford.

This is par for the course at the Capitol, he said. “But at some point the legislature and the Executive Branch have to figure out a package that works. We may be able to move some things and not others.”

“While the priorities mentioned are all intertwined and interconnected – as most complicated legislative issues are –  legislators ought to work collaboratively to address these long standing and long overdue issues,” said Max Reiss, Lamont’s communications director. “It’s what’s best for our state financially and economically in the long term.”

But are Lamont and his fellow Democrats in the legislature’s majority working toward Connecticut’s best interests? House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said the majority’s failure to build an agenda around issues that can pass is the problem.

Lawmakers from both parties are ready to ratify that tentative legal settlement with the hospital industry and end the latter’s four-year battle against the state’s provider tax, she said.

Klarides also said there’s bipartisan support to assist nursing homes and to reform restaurant wage policy rules. Several restaurants say they’re being unfairly sued – despite following state regulation guidelines – over the wages they paid workers who work a portion of the time for tips and for a portion doing non-tipped work, like clearing tables.

House Republicans haven’t taken a position on a vaping ban, though Klarides said she personally believes flavored products shouldn’t be sold.

“I don’t think anybody dreamed it would take this long to get these issues resolved,” she said, adding hospitals, nursing homes and restaurants are important in every district.

So what’s the hold up?

Hung up on tolls

Klarides said Lamont’s push for tolls on all vehicles–  despite his campaign pledge last year only to impose them on large trucks – is a big part of the problem.

“The governor’s office was not successful in its push to get tolls in this state because people stood up and spoke their minds,” she said, adding that lawmakers should resolve issues like restaurant wages now, rather than delay to build support for a new transportation plan. “But unfortunately this is politics and this is what people do.”

Though the administration began briefing lawmakers behind closed doors last week on a new long-term transportation plan, Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano said it “is still in a very amorphous form, so I don’t see that happening this fall.”

Fasano echoed Klarides’ call for action on restaurant wages, nursing home relief and the hospital settlement.

The administration counters there is nothing more important to Connecticut’s economic future that rebuilding its aging, overcrowded infrastructure.

And Ritter said that while the GOP has been most wary of tolls, there’s overwhelming bipartisan agreement the transportation system’s rebuilding is overdue.

“There is no disagreement that we need a massive infusion of cash” into transportation, Ritter said, adding he’s optimistic a special session agenda will be developed at some point this fall.

Compromise language on restaurant wages is under development and a legislative informational hearing will be held in the near future, he said.

Similarly, lawmakers are receiving details on and doing research into the governor’s latest transportation plan.

“I think it’s fair to say we’re making progress” on transportation, Ritter added.

Transportation plan essential

Reiss said Lamont considers adoption of a transportation plan this year to be an essential, right up there with the hospital lawsuit settlement and the bond package.

But that last item has been a key sticking point for the governor and his fellow Democrats in the House and Senate majorities.

Connecticut has more than $25 billion in bonded debt and ranks among the nation’s most indebted states on a per capita basis.

The governor initially recommended that lawmakers authorize no more than $1 billion per year in general obligation bonds, two-thirds of what it issued on average between 2012 and 2019. 

G.O. bonds are repaid with income tax receipts and other revenues from the budget’s general fund and are primarily used to finance local school construction and projects at state colleges and universities.

Lamont offered this summer to consider as much as as $1.3 billion per year in G.O. bonding – provided legislators would agree to dedicate $100 million of that extra $300 million for transportation projects.

Democratic legislative leaders have countered that they need $1.3 billion per year in G.O. bonds to meet all of their non-transportation needs. If Lamont wants an extra $100 million for transportation infrastructure, they said, then the G.O. bonding total needs to climb to $1.4 billion.

Meanwhile, the bonding gridlock has harmed cities and towns.

Connecticut bonds $60 million annually for a local road repair grant, typically sending $30 million to communities in July and $30 million in January.

The first installment never went out, prompting some municipalities to scale back summer road repaving, and others to dip into their winter snow removal budgets – with the assumption they’d replenish those accounts when the $30 million due in July finally arrives.

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who co-chairs the legislature’s Appropriations Committee and also is first selectwoman of her community, said she’s not ready to vote on any issue in special session – if the agenda also doesn’t include a bond package and aid for towns. Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney of New Haven, the top Democrat in that chamber, said the hospital settlement and the bond package must be the “two pillars” of any fall session agenda.

The bond package “really needs to get done as soon as possible,” Looney said. “It has gotten caught up, I think, from the administration’s point of view, with the transportation issue.”

Looney said it really is vital to more than municipal budgets, but also for the construction industry and for many nonprofit community projects that serve the disabled and disadvantaged youth.

But Looney also remains hopeful that lawmakers will resolve many issues this fall. “It remains to be seen whether these issues are so negative they can’t become consensus items,” he said. “They are vital to so many members whose districts have a strong interest in these issues.”

Reprinted with permission of The Connecticut Mirror. The author can be reached at [email protected] .

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