Local leaders look to legislative session to address inequality
The 2024 state legislative session will center on questions of economic inequality, cost of living and education funding.
Zachary Suri, Contributing Photographer
Connecticut is one of the most economically unequal states, and Connecticut residents face one of the highest costs of living nationwide. Despite Governor Ned Lamont’s pledge to keep spending within the state’s spending cap, local leaders told the News that they remain hopeful that the coming legislative session will address the state’s stark economic inequality.
The Connecticut General Assembly will begin its 2024 session on Wednesday. Funding challenges and adjustments to the biennial budget are set to be at the center of discussions in Hartford in the coming months. While the agenda for the session is theoretically limited to minor adjustments to the budget that was passed last year, municipal leaders and union representatives pointed to the cost of living crisis and education funding shortfalls as key issues in need of attention.
Leslie Blatteau, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, told the News that she will concentrate advocacy on the preservation and expansion of K-12 public education funds this session, an issue that is her top priority. Teachers, students and families in Connecticut public schools need state support, Blatteau said.
“We really want to look bigger than what we did last year, and certainly we can accept nothing less than what was approved last year,” Blatteau told the News.
The NHFT will mobilize members to testify in Hartford for public education funding, better working and learning conditions and progressive measures aimed at alleviating the cost of living crisis for New Haven teachers and students.
Blatteau said she worries that financial guardrails might impact education funding, but remains confident that “progressive” legislators will advocate for her members and working families in New Haven.
Gildemar Herrera, who represents New Haven’s municipal employees as the president of AFSCME Local 3144, wants to see the legislature address the regressiveness of the state’s tax system, redistributing more of the tax burden from the working families her union represents to Connecticut’s wealthier residents.
Herrera’s union, which represents some 400 management employees in state and municipal agencies, is particularly concerned about the lack of basic services for low-wage immigrant employees, who make up a significant portion of the city’s workforce.
Paraprofessionals — assistants to teachers in the classroom in New Haven Public Schools represented by AFSCME Local 3429 — often work multiple minimum wage jobs and raise children as single parents at the same time, Herrera said. Housing, healthcare and childcare in particular are challenging for her members to afford.
Too many in Connecticut, Herrera told the News, are “working poor.”
Herrera also said she wants to see more funding for technology and internet access in public schools. Educational IT and supplemental tutoring, she told the News, is critical to “closing the gap” in the state’s educational outcomes.
City officials often testify in state committees for legislation affecting New Haven. City Hall also works closely with the city’s delegation in Hartford to advocate for programs benefiting New Haven communities, Mayor Justin Elicker said.
“We will help support their efforts to lobby and advocate, both publicly and by having one-on-one conversations with other legislators and decision-makers,” he told the News.
Elicker emphasized the need for increased state funding to address homelessness and bolster affordable housing in the city. In particular, Elicker would like to see state funds “cover the gap in costs” that makes affordable housing developments less profitable for developers.
The mayor said that he is optimistic that his advocacy this session will be successful, but shared concerns about the governor’s proposals for adjustments to the biennial budget.
Lamont, who has not fully released his proposed amendments to the budget as of Tuesday night, released a proposal to fund early childhood care late last month. The proposal seems to entail the diversion of education funds, especially those earmarked for magnet and charter schools, a reality acknowledged by Jeffery Beckham, Lamont’s budget chief, when asked by CT Mirror.
“Early childhood education is hugely important, and absolutely should get more funding, but not by robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Elicker told the News.
Elicker also wants to see more state support for “disconnected youth.” According to a new report from the Dalio Foundation, 119,000 youth in Connecticut, or 19 percent of those 14 to 26 years old, fall into this category, which includes youth who lack employment or educational opportunities.
He emphasized the critical role of state funds in mitigating the cost of living crisis. Municipalities are forced to raise property taxes, their main source of revenue, if state support is lacking. In particular, Elicker said he would like the legislature to address the inequities in the distribution of state funds to municipalities, a process he sees as unfair to larger municipalities like New Haven.
Overall though, Elicker struck an optimistic tone, saying that “the state has been very, very good to struggling municipalities” in the last few years.
Joe DeLong, executive director and CEO of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, an advocacy group representing 168 Connecticut municipalities, told the News that he expects little legislative innovation from a short session dedicated mostly to amending the budget passed last year.
The CCM represents municipal elected officials across the state who meet in committees to identify common interests and policy positions to support in Hartford. DeLong said that the property tax burden on Connecticut residents — the third highest in the country — which makes up a significant portion of funding for cities and towns, is a constant concern for municipalities. The CCM has a closer working relationship with state leaders of both parties going into this session than in recent memory, DeLong told the News.
“We feel like one of the most important things to come out of this session is just some stability,” DeLong said.
The 2023 fiscal year marked the fifth surplus in a row in Hartford, an achievement DeLong credits largely to increased revenue from capital gains taxation due to a booming stock market. DeLong said he sees the 2024 session as an opportunity to return to financial normalcy and fiscal stability after decades of budget deficits and austerity measures.
The CCM supported the budget last session and wants the commitments made in budget negotiations honored in 2024. DeLong blamed a long history of the state reneging on its financial commitments and passing ambitious programs without effective funding mechanisms for contributing to high property taxes, as municipalities were forced to fund vital programs themselves.
“Sometimes policymakers are really good at writing out checks with other people’s checkbooks,” DeLong said.
DeLong also pointed to the Dalio Foundation’s report on “disconnected youth” as a key issue in need of legislative attention this session. He also mentioned climate change mitigation and a statewide crisis in municipal solid waste management as other such issues.
DeLong was critical of the governor’s proposed diversion of education funds passed last session, a measure designed to adhere to the state’s spending cap.
“The spending cap was never designed to keep us from investing in our kids,” he told the News.
The state spending cap was first introduced in 1991 alongside Connecticut’s first income tax.
Correction, Feb. 9: This story has been corrected to reflect that New Haven paraprofessional educators are represented by AFSCME Local 3429, not Local 3144.