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CT Baby Bonds program may fail due to lack of support from Lamont

William Fortunato

Connecticut passed its Baby Bonds program in 2021 in an attempt to narrow the racial wealth gap. Lack of support from the governor and other department heads may delay — or prevent — its launch.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Katy Golvala to discuss her article written with Ginny Monk, “Political clashes leave CT Baby Bonds program in limbo,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Katy, you have a fascinating look here at how the levers of power used to frustrate what appeared to have been a popular program. Could you tell us about Connecticut's Baby Bond program? It was championed by State Treasurer Shawn Wooden and he helped get it passed in the legislature. How were you able to obtain the documents that revealed the Lamont administration's efforts to derail this program?

KG: Yeah, so when Ginny Monk and I started reporting this story, we had heard of the Baby Bonds program that had passed in July 2021. And had theoretically been slated to go into effect that year. But then we really hadn't heard anything about it since. So we set out to try and figure out what happened to this program that really had put Connecticut on the national stage and gotten a lot of attention for its passage here. We really did this through good old fashion freedom of information requests. We asked for emails that included the search terms “baby bonds” at the governor's office, the treasurer's office, the Department of Social Services, and the Office of Policy and Management. I want to say that I think the challenges that faced baby bonds were twofold. First, the governor's office made a concerted effort to derail the program at several key points in its path to implementation. And the second is that Shawn Wooden, the champion of this program as you mentioned, legislators we spoke to said that, when it came time to really push to make sure that this program would get the funding it needed to ensure its implementation, Wooden's efforts started to fall off.

WSHU: What was Lamont’s opposition? What was it based on?

KG: That's such a good question. And you know, it's not one that I still even feel like we've gotten a direct answer to. The governor's office has been honest about a couple pieces of the program that it didn't like, the first is the way Wooden originally structured the program. And I'm going to have to go into bonding for a second. So please don't fall asleep on me. But when a program is funded through bonding, it has to go through a two-step approval process. So first, the legislature authorizes the bonding, they say, 'yep, we can go ahead and issue those bonds.' And then the State Bond Commission has to give it the okay as well.

WSHU: And the State Bond Commission is run by the governor.

KG: That's exactly right.

WSHU: And so basically, what happens is, the governor then decides what he'll prioritize after everything else. The legislature says what they want to put on the bonding agenda but then the governor prioritizes what he wants to focus on.

KG: Correct and so that second stuff basically never happened for baby bonds, which is a fate that many programs in this state kind of come to. Keith Phaneuf has talked about this often, that the State Bond Commission has only authorized a portion of the bonding that the legislature has actually voted into law. So that is exactly what Wooden initially tried to avoid, so he first designed the grant to say that the bonding did not need State Bond Commission approval at all and that it was going to be automatic. And the Lamont administration did tell us that they felt that that mechanism went over the head of the governor, over the head of the Office of Policy and Management. And so that was the first step they took, they said, 'we can't have this automatic authorization here.' It's going to operate just like any other program that's funded through bonding, it's going to need State Bond Commission approval every year. That was sort of the first major step that they took to tweak the program.

WSHU: Now you have some emails and some text messages, back and forth with the Governor's Chief of Staff Paul Mounds. He seemed to also have his own personal opinion about the Connecticut baby bonds. Could you just tell us a little bit about what you found out in those in those text messages?

KG: Yeah. I think in the in the text messages that we shared in the story where he's exchanging a conversation about baby bonds with Annie Lamont, we see that Mounds thinks that while a program like baby bonds could be helpful, it really needs to be done as part of a more holistic effort to support families in poverty, which doesn't sound like a bad idea on the surface. It's honestly not a question we really got the opportunity to explore with him much further. But I would say that we did get a little peek into his policy opinions through some of these documents.

WSHU: He felt that it wasn't payload right or the implementation wasn't thought out properly, or something like that, to that extent.

KG: You know, he did not really want to discuss his own personal opinions about the program.

WSHU: But the Department of Social Services Commissioner Deidre Gifford had some problems trying to work out how it would be implemented with the treasurer's office.

KG: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that the concerns raised by Deidre Gifford and DSS were legitimate. We went to the treasurer, and we asked their office about it, and they said that they had attempted to work through some of these concerns. But in late 2021, after working together quite collaboratively, all of the sudden we see emails between DSS and the treasurer's office just stop. Then Deidre Gifford asks her staff to hold off on answering questions on baby bonds until she can get on the same page with the governor's office and OPM about how the agency heads feel about the program. So what we basically see is from summer 2021 to March 2022, is the treasurer's office getting very little by way of response from these other agencies that are supposed to be key partners in implementing the program.

WSHU: Now this is a program that was launched with a lot of fanfare, and it garnered attention from other parts of the country, because this is the first time a program like this has been put in place. And the objective of the program was to put aside some money for children born into poverty, that would be invested, and that they would be able to have access to when they became adults, right?

KG: Yep, that's right. So it's a form of guaranteed access to capital. So the middle class, wealthier kids have to think less about major life expenses, like paying for college, like putting a down payment on a home, like investing in a business because that money comes from their generational wealth. This program says, 'hey, maybe the government should step in and give children born into poverty, that same opportunity.'

WSHU: Shawn Wooden championed this but seemed to lose interest because he decided not to run again. How did the fact that he decided not to run again play into the fact that they were able to stall implementation of this?

KG: Yeah, that's a good question. I think it ultimately hurt the program even more, because based on the emails, the governor's office did not seem excited about the program. The agency heads had concerns about the program. And then once Wooden announced that he was not going to be seeking reelection, we basically see emails from the governor's staff saying that they're considering undoing the bond authorization for the program entirely.

WSHU: Now we have a new treasurer who's coming in taking office now, what has he said about the Baby Bond program?

KG: He said he supports the program. I haven't had a conversation with him in which I've had the opportunity to ask more.

WSHU: We’re talking about Erick Russell here.

KG: Yes. So Erick Russell answered a few of our questions via email about whether he supports the program. We did not get the opportunity to interview him and what I would have liked to have asked him is not just does he support the program, but is he ready to be a champion for the program? Because without a champion, you can see this program pretty quickly, potentially failing to ever get implemented. So I think the jury is still out there and we'll have to see. He says he supports it, but I think it's gonna take a lot more than just support. So it'll be interesting to see if someone does step up.

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.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.