Our legislative agenda for 2019
On Wednesday, Ned Lamont will take the oath of office as the governor of Connecticut, then later in the day deliver his State of the State Address to a joint session of the General Assembly, also newly sworn into office.
It will be several weeks, however, before the state’s new Democratic governor delivers his proposed budget with its outline as to how he wants the legislature to address Connecticut’s ongoing fiscal challenges.
This will be a long legislative session, with adjournment scheduled for June 5. In addition to producing a two-year revenue and spending plan, the General Assembly is expected to take up such issues as whether to implement tolls on our state highways, increase the minimum wage and provide for mandatory paid family leave, legalize marijuana for recreational use and implement sports betting.
The following is The Day’s legislative agenda — the policies our editorial board wants to see addressed and how. These are the issues our editorials will focus on, while providing a forum on our opinion pages for alternative views.
Providing fiscal stability
Current projections show the state’s budget reserve fund, more commonly called the Rainy Day Fund, growing to nearly $2.1 billion, or about 11 percent of General Fund expenditures. Balanced against this good news is the bad news of projected budgetary shortfall of $1.7 billion for the first full fiscal year of the Lamont administration, starting July 1, and $2.3 billion the year after.
The temporary surplus was caused by short-term factors, including a rising stock market that has since dramatically reversed and a one-time impact from the big tax cuts passed by the Republican-controlled Congress. The projected deficits, on the other hand, are due to long-term structural challenges, mainly debt obligations and closing the gap on long under-funded state and teacher pension plans.
Lamont cannot allow the legislature to squander the Rainy Day Fund on a temporary fiscal repair, particularly given the ominous signs coming from the financial markets. Almost certainly lawmakers will use some portion of it to close the projected deficits, but the governor must demand prudence.
The legislature should refinance the teachers’ pension fund to make the payments manageable and find a dedicated funding source to pay for it. Revenue from sports betting might be a place to look.
Lamont must also get labor back to the table for more concessions because the cost of pensions and retirement health care is a large driver of the projected deficits.
Work out a deal that involves the tribes that run our two state casinos, avoiding a possible legal fight, and get this done. Sports betting won’t generate enough revenue to fix the state’s fiscal problems, but if dedicated to a specific use — we suggest helping fund teacher pensions — it could be a difference maker.
Marijuana is now legal to purchase and possess in much of New England. Connecticut residents are buying it, but their business and their tax dollars are going elsewhere. Given that reality, a sensible plan for legalization is the right course.
Unfortunately, the legislature disregarded our past suggestions to mandate a comprehensive study, looking at all angles of the issue, that we feel is necessary for making an informed decision on how best to move to legalized marijuana.
As much as the legislature might want the revenues quickly, this should be a two-step process. Authorize a study with a wide inclusion of participants from medical, legal, business, marijuana advocacy and law enforcement fields, and then be prepared to act on its guidelines and recommendations. If that means waiting until the 2020 session, so be it.
Paid Family Leave
We recognize the importance of families not losing their source of income when having to take time to deal with a family crisis. However, the details on how to address this challenge could not be more important. How will employees on leave be paid, by whom and for how long? Will all businesses be covered, or only those over a certain size? While certainly interested in the goal of paid family leave legislation, we await the details to decide on our level of support.
Though the $15 per hour suggestion appears arbitrarily selected, we do see the need for a gradual increase of the state minimum wage. If phased in — with a contingency to pause planned increases if economic factors dictate — the benefits of increasing the minimum wage will be greater economic stability for some families and increased consumer spending. Fears of big job cuts and automation are overblown.
While we await the details of what an electronic toll system would look like, the necessity of assessing a toll on motor vehicles driving on the state’s major highways is clear. There is no other way of raising the revenues necessary to update the state’s decrepit transportation infrastructure and assuring out-of-state drivers using Connecticut roads help pay for it.
A lockbox state constitutional amendment approved by voters in November assures that money raised by tolls will be used for transportation needs. That is something we long advocated for and were delighted to see pass.
An Associated Press story published in December pointed to a shortfall in the state funding set aside to pay unemployment compensation. Not a critical problem now, it could become one if the economy slips. Some basic changes — such as raising the minimum earnings threshold to $3,000 to qualify for unemployment benefits (it’s now $600 a year) and prohibiting unemployment benefits until those who lost their job have exhausted severance pay — could help fix things.
The legislature should approve and Lamont should sign such structural changes.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.
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