The Connecticut Legislature passed a large and wide-sweeping piece of legislation during a special session on Monday. The bill, which covered everything from the gas tax to home heating assistance to pandemic bonuses and even changes to the bottle tax, passed by a vast majority in the House with only seven Republican members voting against it. It passed the Senate unanimously a few hours later.
Despite that margin, the bill faced a long debate on the house floor as Republican members argued that some sections didn’t go far enough while others were considered unnecessary.
An attempt to separate the bill into sections so members could vote on each measure individually failed in a party-line vote. The stated intention of lumping seemingly disparate measures into one bill was one of expediency, as the representatives had assembled for the special session as part of an executive order from Governor Lamont. All measures included in the bill were the purview of either the Finance or Appropriations Committees.
GOP representatives argued that combining measures they easily supported with those they took some issue with meant they would be voting for a bill they didn’t entirely support.
Gas tax moratorium extended but ends soon
A proposed extension to the state’s gas tax moratorium from earlier this year prompted the greatest amount of debate and two failed amendments. Under the bill, the 25 cents per gallon gas tax normally collected by the state would be waived for another month, through the end of December.
Starting in January, the bill would then begin to phase the tax back in at 5 cents per month through May. When pressed, Finance Committee Chair and Comptroller-elect Rep. Sean Scanlon (D-New Haven) argued that Connecticut was one of only five states to implement a gas tax moratorium and that it was one of the last to begin collecting the tax again. He also stated that, should gas prices continue to fall over the next six months, consumers would see very little change in the price at the pump.
GOP representatives, for their part, attempted to introduce an amendment to the bill that would extend the moratorium in its entirety through the end of the fiscal year (June 2023). They argued there is enough of a budget surplus in the Special Transportation Fund (STF) to cover such an action and that consumers could use the money they save on gas to pay for food, electricity, and home heating oil, all items that have seen major price increases over the last few months.
Rep. Scanlon, however, argued that such an action would be imprudent, as it would mean using 2/3s of the estimated $340 million surplus over six months. As written, the gas tax moratorium has so far cost about $240 million in lost revenue and will cost an additional $90 million by May, when it will be completely phased back in.
A second amendment once again attempted to include diesel fuel in the gas tax exemption. The choice to limit that exemption only to regular gasoline for passenger vehicles has been a point of contention since the measure was first introduced earlier this year. Arguments in favor were based on the idea that any increases in fuel costs for shipping and hauling companies have been passed down to consumers, and assumed that lessening that burden on commercial truck drivers and companies would translate to lower costs for consumers.
Both amendments were voted down along party lines.
Home heating assistance funding
The bill also provided about $30 million in funding for home heating assistance funds, as Connecticut consumers face increases in both electric and home heating oil costs just as winter is getting underway.
In a recent move, the state’s electric suppliers notified the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority that supply charges would be doubling, starting in January through the end of the fiscal year in June. This will amount to a 40% increase in electric bills, or around $80 per month for the average consumer.
Home heating oil, meanwhile, has more than doubled in price for many as supply struggles to keep up with demand going into the colder months.
Republicans argued that the measure wasn’t going far enough to offset costs for consumers and that the amount of money that was available for these programs was going to be split between a larger number of people struggling to pay their bills.
Hero pay funded for private pandemic workers
Another measure sparking debate was a proposed $75 million in funds for pandemic hero pay.
Under the program, certain designated essential workers in private industry will be eligible for up to $1,000 in a one-time, taxable bonus. The exact amount is based on the employee’s yearly salary with higher earners awarded just $100.
Eligible workers include nurses, daycare employees, grocery workers, delivery drivers, and emergency responders working for private institutions. State and municipal employees are not included in the funding.
According to Scanlon, more than 155,000 people applied for the program before the October deadline.
The Republican side of the chamber was split over whether this funding was sufficient for workers who provided much-needed services over the last two and a half years. Some argued that at least a few of these categories, namely nurses, deserved more than what was being awarded to them for serving on the front lines of the pandemic. Others, specifically Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco (R-Wolcott) questioned whether further financial support for these workers was necessary since they “just did the job they signed up to do.”
Free bus service extended through June, changes to the bottle tax
Passing without much debate were the final two measures. The first extended the state’s fare-free bus services through the end of the 2023 fiscal year.
The final measure included changes to the state’s bottle tax which go into effect in January of 2024. The measure at hand allowed stores and manufacturers to allow current inventory with old labels to run out without requiring them to update already printed labels at further expense.
Despite the various debates, the House did overwhelmingly vote to pass the bill and send it immediately to the Senate. It passed in a unanimous 33-0 vote after another few hours of discussion and debate.