Gov. Ned Lamont. Frankie Graziano / Connecticut Public Radio
Gov. Ned Lamont. Frankie Graziano / Connecticut Public Radio

Gov. Ned Lamont’s goal of completing his first state budget on time could be stymied by his reluctance to order taxes aimed specifically at Connecticut’s wealthiest.

Boxed in by large deficit forecasts and caps on spending and revenue, the new administration is finding that progress toward one goal may cause others to unravel.

“Any time you move one piece here or there it creates a concern somewhere else,” said Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, who has been House chairman of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee for the past three years.

“I think it’s obvious we have a few things in the revenue package that are causing concern this year,” Rojas said.

Taxing the rich is ‘a really bad idea’

One of those concerns was raised by the governor, who campaigned on a pledge not to raise income tax rates. He avoided that option in February when he proposed his budget, even though state finances were projected to run about $3.7 billion in deficit — unless adjusted — over the next two fiscal years combined.

Some legislators balked at the governor’s revenue package, saying it was too regressive. Hundreds of millions of dollars would be raised by canceling dozens of sales tax exemptions. A new tax would be imposed on sugary beverages and municipalities would be forced to contribute to the teachers’ pension fund.

The finance panel countered with a more modest sales tax expansion. It dropped the sugary beverages tax and teacher pension bills.

The committee also proposed a tax hike on capital gains — but only on households already paying the top state income tax rate. That means singles earning more than $500,000 annually from all sources and couples topping $1 million.

Lamont called this a “really bad idea” and repeated earlier warnings that taxing the rich would drive Connecticut’s biggest taxpayers to move out of state.

The finance committee was counting on the capital gains surcharge to raise $262 million per year by 2020-21.

Sources said closed-door talks between the administration and legislative leaders include a scaled-back surcharge only on certain short-term capital gains — investments held for less than one year — that would yield $50 million per year in revenue for the state. 

That would leave more than $210 million in other revenue or savings for Lamont and legislators to find to balance the budget.

Property tax relief in in jeopardy?

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford

If the governor and legislators can’t agree on taxing the rich to balance the books, the next stop is the middle-class.

Lamont campaigned on a pledge to deliver major property tax breaks to low- and middle-income households. He said most of that relief could come in the third and fourth years of his term by expanding a popular state income tax credit.

But Lamont also pledged to provide some relief in his first budget.

Low- and middle-income households without children lost the ability two years ago to reduce their state income tax obligations by up to $200 — provided they paid that much in local property taxes.

Lamont proposed restoring that eligibility, and the $53 million per year those households lost, starting with tax returns they file in 2021.

But that proposal now is in jeopardy, as the governor and legislators seek alternatives to the capital gains surcharge.

“Governor Lamont remains committed to passing a budget that will put the state on the best path forward for the ensuing biennium and the decades to follow,” said Melissa McCaw, Lamont’s budget director. “… We need to ensure that Connecticut’s residents, businesses and investors have more certainty and predictability and we will not be exposed to tax rate volatility while the state bounces from one financial crisis to another.”

Progressives offer new options to tax the rich

But some of the Lamont’s fellow Democrats in the House and Senate see things differently.

The House Democratic Progressive Caucus, which includes more than 40 of the 91 party members in that chamber, has been pressing for higher income taxes on the wealthy since the session began.

These could be used, members said, to scale back the governor’s sales tax plan, shore up funding for education, health care and municipalities, or reduce Connecticut’s significant pension and bonded debt.

The caucus teamed with dozens of labor unions, churches and other religious groups Monday at the Capitol for the “Fair & Just Budget Rally.”

Organizers sent the administration an array of options for taxing the wealthy, including the capital gains surcharge recommended by the finance committee.

They also offered a “3-2-1 plan” to boost the top marginal rates on the state income tax.

Couples making more than $1 million per year already pay 6.99 percent on all earnings. 

Under this plan, couples earning: 

  • More than $5 million would pay 9.99 percent.
  • More than $1 million would pay 8.99 percent.
  • More than $500,000 would pay 7.99 percent.

The coalition’s final option was the so-called “mansion tax,  a statewide property tax of one mill on houses valued at more than $1 million. Proponents estimated this would raise $59 million per year.

But sources said the focus of the administration has been on avoiding major tax hikes on the rich.

With Republicans in both chambers offering no alternative budget — and making it clear they will vote against any plan with tax hikes — Lamont and most of his fellow Democrats likely must solve the next budget by themselves.

“We’re hoping we come up with that balance to where it passes our caucus, passes the Senate and gets the governor’s signature,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz D-Berlin, said. “We can’t just do it on our own.”

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said the capital gains surcharge endorsed by the finance committee “made sense” to him as part of a larger mix of revenue-raising proposals. “The governor disagrees and he’s the governor of the state. We’ve got to work with him on that.”

So what happens if Democratic leaders ask rank-and-file legislators to adopt a budget with no tax hikes aimed at the rich?

Aresimowicz and Ritter declined to speculate on what that final plan might contain, but both expressed optimism they can secure the necessary votes. 

“I would say the previous two years and this year we spent a lot of time talking to caucus members,” Aresimowicz said. “I think we have a good understanding of where their priorities are and where they’d be willing to land.”

“People have opinions, but there’s not a divide whatsoever,” Ritter said. “We have a 91-person caucus that is tight, working together. We have moderates, we have liberals, we have everything in between.”

But Rep. Anne Hughes, D-Easton, co-chairwoman of the progressive caucus, said leaders should not underestimate her caucus’ commitment.

“We want progressive taxation and the governor is saying ‘no,’” she said. “I think that will be a problem. I don’t know how we can do this (budget) without some form of progressive taxation.”

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Keith M. PhaneufState Budget Reporter

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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14 Comments

  1. Might I point out the obvious without being censored that we have just come off two of the largest tax increases in the history of the state under the Malloy administration during the last eight years? And Governor Malloy himself professed that every penny of those increases and more has gone to pension fund payments. So the progressive term “shore up” really means ALL tax increases will be used purely to fund the previous theft of state revenues which never were deposited in pension funds as required actuarially.
    The needs of education, infrastructure, infirmed, and elderly must remain at flat levels to allow for restitution of pensions and the ever increasing salaries of overpaid (relative to the private sector) state employees with guaranteed jobs. Correct me if this statement is inaccurate.

  2. It’s always about protecting the wealthy. That rate will not hurt their overall lifestyle. One percent on those making $100,000 or less would. Why the wealthy so stingy? Why the legislature so worried about offending the wealthy? Oh… yeah… votes. Poor people vote too.

  3. How does someone like Anne Hughes CT135 from Easton, representing Weston and Redding, get elected from that district? She’s a perfect example of why it’s important to vote. Won by less than 1K out of 12K cast, little less than 50% eligible.

  4. Keith, this should be written with whole numbers.

    “Couples making more than $1 million per year already pay 7 percent on all earnings.
    Under this plan, couples earning:
    More than $5 million would pay 10 percent.
    More than $1 million would pay 9 percent.
    More than $500,000 would pay 8 percent.”

    When people ask you how hot it is outside, do you reply “78.4 degrees”?

    1. If you include the Family Medical Leave Act tax increase, the numbers are actually higher:
      10.5% –> 11%

      9.5% –> 10%
      8.5% –> 9%

      Its as if they are intentionally trying to push people to leave the state.

      1. They are trying (and succeeding). The people most likely to leave are affluent Fairfield County Republicans. They leave,that means a greater percentage of Democratic votes, more Democratic State Senators and Representatives, more Democratic Governors, more control, more job security for legislators, more public employee benefits and union jobs. It’s really very clever, isn’t it?

  5. It is outrageous how the rich control our politicians. Imagine what a great State we could have if we passed a budget that taxes the rich massively.

    1. Reportedly the Gold Coast residents (less than 1/10th of CT’s population) supply about 40% of CT’s income. Suppose their CT taxes went up substantially, say 10%. How many would leave CT ? Hard to say with any precision. But currently according to Zillow some 4,000 + Gold Coast homes are for sale. Many of those actually sold were marked down from their assessed valuation. For example, the 2nd highest property in New Canaan has been marked down 50% after 2 1/2 years w/o offers. So its quite likely that any major new tax hike on the Gold Coast would be largely in not entirely offset by reduced numbers living in CT. Major new taxing on Gold Coast residents sounds initially attractive. But isn’t likely to be a major solution to CT’s over spending problems persisting over several decades.

  6. We are nearly at a tipping point. With Democrat majorities and now with 40 of 91 house members part of the house progressive caucus, things could devolve quickly. These progressives will continue to tax the evil rich until enough of them decide to move with their feet and blow up the state budget. This is a losing gamble that will cost the state taxpayer and business revenue in the long run.

    Keep voting progressives into power in Hartford and help to accelerate Connecticut’s fiscal demise.

  7. How does a Representative get elected like Anne Hughes from CT-135 with a constituency consisting of Easton, Redding, and Weston? She’s the result of less than 50% turnout and a 1k plurality. No doubt, the district is more affluent than many and would be affected by the tax. But, its constituents are hardworking families, many first and second generation immigrants, living their dream. Much different that our Governor who has generational family wealth and investment banker wife.

  8. 1) Some sales tax are progressive because they tax services only higher-income households purchase.
    2) Our sales tax system is Swiss Cheese, so full of holes that it is collecting less and less relative to total household consumption–down $220 million over five years.
    3) A much LOWER sales tax without exemptions would actually be more stable and less regressive, and if linked with a rebate (not a credit) for a basic food and clothing budget, would have the great virtue of permitting the State to track household dynamics in real time. (CT has no useful info on this front now),
    4) The whole revenue system is a mess, but no one seems interested in figuring out why income tax collections are down $490 million relative to household income in CT and sales tax tax is down that $220 million relative to consumption. Why isn’t the Governor, OPM, and the Legislature asking why the State is down $770 MILLION (a big chunk of the projected deficit)? CT flies blind.

  9. Doesn’t look like our elected officials see any connection between a decade long stagnant economy/employment levels and among the nation’s highest tax rates. So why be surprised higher taxes are proposed to close our billion dollar budget deficits. Or those many see the beginnings of a 2nd decade of stagnant economy/employment for CT. Or that our youngsters educated at public expense are exiting CT seeking good jobs in NY and Mass booming economies. CT is making history !

  10. Plans for yet higher taxes on ‘the rich’ with no significant spending reductions will only accelerate the taxpayer exodus from Connecticut. This will end…badly

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