COVID-19 Issues Drive State Lawmakers’ Policy Agendas
Democratic and Republican state House leaders have signaled their priorities for the 2021 legislative session, releasing policy agendas largely driven by COVID-19 issues.
Shortly after House Democrats voted to endorse new leaders last month, Speaker-Designate Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) and Majority Leader-Designate Jason Rojas (D-East Hartford) outlined their priorities.
State lawmakers must address a projected $4.3 billion, two-year budget deficit when the General Assembly convenes in January.
Connecticut ranks among the most indebted states per capita in the nation, with debt service costs accounting for over 10% of annual budget state spending.
Democratic leaders, along with state Comptroller Kevin Lembo, also kicked off a renewed push to bring a public option healthcare plan to Connecticut.
The 2021 bill will likely mirror legislation introduced last year that would have opened the state’s troubled Municipal Partnership Plan to small businesses with 50 or fewer employees.
The comptroller would administer the plan, which—unlike private healthcare plans—would not be regulated by the state Department of Insurance.
Lembo’s office would also have authority to set premiums and cost-sharing subsidies, raising new concerns given the state-run municipal plan has seen multi-million dollar deficits in recent years.
House Democrats also unveiled a renewed push to legalize recreational marijuana at a press conference announcing the re-appointment of state Rep. Michael D’Agostino (D-Hamden) as co-chair of the General Law Committee.
Saying the vote would be “very, very close,” Ritter pledged that if a legalization bill fails, he will push for a constitutional amendment and send the issue to Connecticut voters.
If the amendment clears both chambers, a public vote would not occur until 2022 or 2024.
The legalization of marijuana has major workplace safety implications. The issue is of particular concern for the state’s defense manufacturers.
Small Business Relief
House Republicans this week called for a series of reforms to help small businesses struggling to survive amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Incoming House minority leader Vincent Candelora (R-North Branford) called for the Lamont administration to suspend implementation of the 0.5% paid family and medical leave payroll tax scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1.
The paid FMLA mandate disproportionately targets small businesses, who are bearing the brunt of COVID-19 shutdowns and disruptions.
Republicans also called for a 90-day delay in paying property taxes, suspending payments until April next year.
“This level of fear is starting to drive businesses to despair and they’re starting to have this cost-benefit analysis of ‘Is it really worth it for me to try to keep my business open?'” Candelora told reporters.
Candelora also urged the Lamont administration to allocate a portion of the coronavirus relief funds Connecticut received from the federal government to stabilize the state’s bankrupt unemployment trust fund.
Connecticut employers face tax hikes to pay off the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal loans the state needs to continue paying unemployment benefit claims.
Republicans also want the administration to renew Lamont’s executive order preventing COVID-19 related unemployment claims from affecting a business’ experience rating.
Candelora has asked Connecticut’s Congressional delegation to support extending the interest-free period on the state’s federal unemployment loans.
Those loans, which could exceed $800 million, will be subject to a 2.4% interest rate beginning Jan. 1.
“It’s the business community that’s going to pay that,” Candelora said. “It’s unnecessary, given these extraordinary times, that we should be adding interest to something that is really a national crisis.”
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