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Transportation Funding, Marijuana Legalization Top Connecticut Dem. Priorities In 2021

The Connecticut Capitol Building in Hartford
Johnathon Henninger

Connecticut’s Democratic Governor Ned Lamont and the state’s incoming legislative leaders have outlined their agenda for the 2021 legislative session that begins in January.

Lamont gave his priorities shortly after the results of the November election showed that his party had gained seats in the General Assembly and would have a supermajority in the state Senate. But the governor said he will hold the line on taxes in negotiations to balance the state budget in the wake of the COVID-19 economic downturn.

"I thought the idea of Connecticut jumping for raising taxes on our own, puts our state at a terrible competitive disadvantage, right when we have the wind at our back,” Lamont told WSHU’s Capitol Avenue podcast.

That’s because more people have moved to Connecticut during the pandemic, increasing the states’ tax rolls.

Lamont said he wants to keep Connecticut competitive with neighboring states. He said that’s why he’ll support legalizing pot. It’s already legal in Massachusetts, and New Jersey voters just approved it in November.

“New Jersey has done this, Rhode Island's looking at it, New York is looking at it,” he said. “So I’ll be talking to my fellow governors about what if anything we want to do on a regional basis. And then talk with the legislators as well.”

A thorny issue is finding a way to replenish the state’s Special Transportation Fund, which has been depleted because more efficient and fewer cars on the road during the pandemic means less gasoline tax revenues for the state. Lamont’s proposal to reintroduce highway tolls to help fix the problem failed two years ago.

"I came up with my best solution for what I thought was a transportation crisis. I think COVID is only exacerbating that, you know. That gas tax revenue went down; we've been draining the transportation fund,” Lamont said. “We did get a lot of CARES Act Transportation money.”

Lawmakers like incoming House Speaker Matt Ritter, who supported Lamont’s highway toll idea, say tolls are now a dead issue.

“I assumed when we were pushing for tolls in 2019, that the world was going to be like the world was,” Ritter. “Well that world has changed a lot because of COVID.”

Ritter said that change includes less commuting.

“We predicated our entire system on getting people to New York as quickly as possible. And back to Connecticut as quickly as possible. There’s always going to be a need for trains to New York,” he said. “But I got to ask the question. You know why there’s no traffic anymore? Because a lot of people are working from home. So I’m not sure that the dollar value is the same as it was maybe two years ago.”

The incoming House Speaker agreed that marijuana legalization would be on the agenda, but he said it has to go further than just legalization.

“I live in Hartford. I have friends who got in trouble for selling marijuana that I grew up with who are African American,” Ritter said. “So we have to also think about historic wrongs and the imbalances on the prosecution of marijuana. And I think it doesn’t exist today as much as we decriminalized it, but we could expunge records from marijuana. If we legalize it. That’s a big part of this bill too.”

Incoming House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, who will lead slightly fewer Republicans in his caucus next year, said opposition to marijuana is not a partisan issue in his caucus.

“We’ve had Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the issue. So I don’t find it to be partisan. As someone who has opposed the legislation my concern is with the commercialization of marijuana,” Candelora said. “You are encouraging an enterprise of an illicit drug to be sold. An addicting drug and what impact does that have on our kids and society?”

He said the regulation of online sports betting will be on his agenda.

“You know we are leaving money on the table. And so we need to take a look at it, regulate it and allow it to be part of the new sort of modernized method of gambling,” he said.

Candelora said a stumbling block might be the state’s gaming compact with Connecticut’s two federally recognized Indigenous tribes, who run the Foxwoods Resorts and the Mohegan Sun casinos.

“We need to have that conversation before we can move gaming forward,” he said.

Kevin Kelly, incoming Republican minority leader in the Senate, said he too will have fewer members in his caucus in January. But he said that would not stop him from challenging the Democrats agenda.

“Recreational marijuana, tolls were not really envisioned because you know smoking marijuana is a good social policy,” Kelly said. “Or that you know, tolls will improve jobs and be an enhancement to our economy.”

He said his caucus will push for what he said are things that really affect Connecticut families like jobs and education. Kelly gives the example of a proposal to reduce health insurance premiums by 20% that Republicans have championed for the past two years.

“Twenty percent could be a $400 or $500 reduction,” he said. “Couldn’t every middle class family in Connecticut enjoy a $400 to $500 reduction?”

Senate President Martin Looney said healthcare is also a top priority for his Democratic caucus, who now have a 24 to 12 seat advantage in the Senate. However, their priority would be for a public option.

“Without high deductibles, that’s going to be critically important, especially if the ACA is weakened or damaged or undermined in any way by the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said.

He also believes that the reform of local property taxes should be on the agenda.

“It is the local property tax that people find most burdensome tax in Connecticut,” Looney said.

Homeowners pay high tax rates in Connecticut’s major cities because a lot of property on their grand lists are owned by hospitals, colleges and other tax exempt institutions. The state compensates municipalities for such losses through a program called Payments in Lieu of Taxes or PILOT. Looney said the state needs to provide more financial assistance to cities

“And I think that we need to do that in a number of ways by changing the way in which the PILOT program is funded and prioritized,” he said.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.