A man walks by Christopher Martins Restaurant & Pub in New Haven about one week after Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont ordered that all restaurants close to limit the spread of COVID-19. Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public Radio
A man walks by Christopher Martins Restaurant & Pub in New Haven about one week after Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont ordered that all restaurants close to limit the spread of COVID-19. Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public Radio

While Gov. Ned Lamont was watching his emergency business loan program max out in two days last week, administration officials were reminding disconsolate companies here that hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid to small businesses remain to be tapped.

States cannot come close to matching the federal government’s ability to mobilize resources in a crisis, administration officials noted. Connecticut also has a balanced-budget requirement in its Constitution and lacks Congress’ power to effectively print money.

But while Lamont earned praise for his first attempt at state-sponsored relief, one state lawmaker said it didn’t go far enough.  And Connecticut policymakers, economists, and  business leaders said there are more cards the state can play to provide financial relief amidst the pandemic.

Still, those options chiefly involve borrowing and tax relief — choices Connecticut officials must weigh carefully, given the state’s ugly history with massive debt and unstable revenues.

“I didn’t think $25 million was enough and I hope they revisit this and start working on a second phase right away,”said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, referring to Lamont’s initial proposal to fund the state’s business relief program. The governor doubled the program to $50 million before closing applications on Friday, just two days after it launched and after receiving close to $200 million in requests for aid.

“I didn’t think $25 million was enough and I hope they revisit this.”

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano

“Government has told them they can’t operate 85% of their business,” Fasano said, referring to restaurant industry estimates that 85% to 90% of restaurant business involves dine-in patrons. “I think we need to respond to those businesses that have been shut down or had their business substantially impaired. They should go to the head of the line.”

Deferring tax payments is an interest-free loan

But while dollars are important, so is timeliness, said Joseph F. Brennan, president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.

States, in general, can move faster than Washington, and sometimes local needs slip through the cracks in federal relief efforts.

Lamont tried to address both of those this week with a $25 million, no-interest loan program for small businesses. But some said Connecticut businesses may need even more immediate assistance than the bridge loans provide.

University of Connecticut economist Fred Carstensen Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public Radio

The Connecticut Restaurant Association has asked Lamont to waive or at least defer collection of up to three months of sales tax receipts the industry owes the state.

Connecticut’s 8,500 restaurants generated $8.9 billion in gross sales in 2019, according to the association. Based on those sales, and the current 6.35% tax rate — plus a 1% surcharge on prepared meals — three months of sales tax receipts would be roughly $160 million.

“This is our Number One ask,” said Scott Dolch, executive director of the CRA, adding that about 160,000 jobs hang in the balance.

It’s been more than a week since Lamont closed restaurant dine-in service, and the average operation in Connecticut gets only 10% of its business from takeout, Dolch said, adding more than four out of 10 restaurants here have shut down completely.

And with extremely narrow profit margins — on average just over 3% — “every day that goes by is make-or-break for some restaurants,” he added. “Unfortunately I can promise you a lot of them will not be able to reopen.”

Simply forgiving $160 million is unlikely when the current state budget is already $178 million in deficit and analysts are fearing huge revenue shortfalls in the coming months.

“We have tools available to us given the federal stimulus package, the state’s strong cash position and historic reserves, and existing programs. … This may not present an ideal situation for our state budget and fiscal forecasts, but these are extraordinary times that require extraordinary efforts.”

Melissa McCaw
State budget director

But Lamont already has already delayed state income and business tax filing deadlines.

University of Connecticut economist Fred V. Carstensen, who heads the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, didn’t weigh in on the restaurants’ request for a sales tax payment delay. But he said deferring tax payments can make a huge difference for businesses on fiscal life-support.

“Every household, every business knows, when you have to pay, look first where you’re going to suffer penalties if you can’t pay on time,” Carstensen said. “You send a very positive sign. It’s symbolic. It says we’re trying to help you stay afloat.”

Billions in property tax bills a few months away

And while the state income, sales and business taxes all are considerable, an even larger tax bill hits mailboxes in just over three months.

Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

Connecticut municipalities generate about $11 billion per year from property taxes. And, in most communities, the first half of real estate and personal property tax bills — and all of the motor vehicle tax — is due in July.

And if these payments are late, the penalty is a whopper. By statute, delinquent property taxpayers face a penalty of 18% per year.

Leaders of both the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the Connecticut Council of Small Towns said state officials have begun discussions about tax relief options here.

Most talk has centered on whether to give communities the option of deferring those penalties, effectively giving taxpayers a grace period.

Betsy Gara, executive director of COST, said any waiver would need to be handled carefully.

With the prospect of more late tax payments than normal — coupled with the additional burdens municipalities already are facing, deferring tax payments or penalties could place even more of a strain on communities — particularly poor cities and rural areas.

Those communities that opt to do so likely would be forced to drain their reserves to stay afloat, and not all can afford to do so, she said. “Certainly towns are spending a lot more on public health and safety than they anticipated,” Gara said. And like state government, municipalities now face skyrocketing pension costs as their respective pension investments lose value amid a weak stock market.

“There’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty at the municipal level,” she said.

Connecticut has a big credit card limit

Lamont tried to eliminate business uncertainty last week with his no-interest, state loan program. It was designed to cover three months of a business’s expenses, was capped at $75,000, and can run for up to 18 months. The loans are limited to businesses with no more than 100 employees. 

And while they wouldn’t commit to launching more state-sponsored relief after the first program maxed out, neither would administration officials rule anything out.

Lamont’s first program was funded utilizing revenue on repaid loans administered by DECD.

But the administration also can draw upon the new, two-year bond package approved earlier this month by the 187-member General Assembly, which leaders sent home two weeks ago for public safety.

In fact, over many years, legislatures have authorized almost $4 billion in general obligation bonds that still haven’t been issued. And while many are tied to specific purposes, many others have considerable flexibility built into them.

So if Lamont needs to borrow again, the credit card is fully loaded.

Leaders: General Assembly is still working — remotely

Without question, Connecticut’s biggest role in providing relief is to become the arms of Washington, D.C., focusing and distributing federal relief to hospitals, other care providers, businesses, the sick and the needy, said Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw, Lamont’s budget director.

But if the state budget must supplement that role, it also remains healthy — but it’s less clear how long that will last.

Budget director Melissa McCaw mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org

“We have tools available to us given the federal stimulus package, the state’s strong cash position and historic reserves, and existing programs,” said Lamont’s budget director, Melissa McCaw. “This may not present an ideal situation for our state budget and fiscal forecasts, but these are extraordinary times that require extraordinary efforts.”

Even with a $178 million deficit, this fiscal year’s budget — which ends June 30 — is fine thanks to a $2.5 billion rainy day fund.

But after that things get dicey with some economists declaring the U.S. already is in recession and predicting unemployment will approach 13% by summer.

Connecticut at least has a budget in place, thanks to the legislators who in 1991 put the state on a two-year fiscal cycle.

Lawmakers adopted a preliminary budget for 2020-21 last May. They left the Capitol earlier this month before they could adjust that budget.

“This pandemic is fundamentally changing the way we’re going to work, the way we’re going to do education. We’re kind of a black hole on I-T infrastructure.”

Fred V. Carstensen
University of Connecticut economist 

But Lamont has limited flexibility to move money around between one appropriation and another. And he is getting advice.

And leaders say the legislature hasn’t gone fully dormant. Democratic and Republican caucuses, in both chambers, meet by conference call.

From left, Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz and House Minority Leader Themis Klarides. (in background) Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff.

“At least twice this week I’ve had my entire caucus on a conference call,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said, adding other leaders are doing the same. House and Senate leaders then connect by phone.

And while legislators from both parties praised Lamont for taking input from leaders, they said it’s crucial this continue if the pandemic blocks full legislative action for months rather than weeks.

“We are the ones getting information from our constituents,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby.“It’s a new world for now and this has to be a team effort.”

“At some point some statutory changes will be needed by the legislature to validate or sustain what is being done on an emergency basis,” added Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.

And it’s at this point, economists said, that state government’s relief role will be most tested.

While Connecticut must provide immediate assistance, once the recovery begins, the economy itself must change, Carstensen said.

“This pandemic is fundamentally changing the way we’re going to work, the way we’re going to do education,” he said. “We’re kind of a black hole on I-T infrastructure.”

Connecticut needs to make more use of its credit card when the smoke clears.

Fiber-optic cable, server rooms, data centers and any other aspect of information technology infrastructure is as important in a post-coronavirus-world as any highway, rail or bridge, Carstensen said.

Connecticut also can spur companies to grow by mobilizing billions of dollars in stranded tax credits — tax relief companies have earned but effectively cannot use because of annual limits.

The state could lift those caps for firms adding jobs and expanding operations in key areas.

“If you structure it correctly, there is no net loss of revenue to the state. We do not lose a dime in terms of current revenues,” he said. “It rewards you for doing something to reshape your future. That’s been our problem. We weren’t doing anything and the world was changing.”


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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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8 Comments

  1. $50 million to support our private sector (that creates the vast majority of our jobs) is woefully inadequate. It is embarrassing and illustrates our state’s financial weakness and lack of prioritization – where do they think their taxes will come from?

    While it is horrible to say, I imagine the vast majority of those initial applications are in the hospitality industry (because it is at 10% of normal revenue) and hopefully short lived. But if that spreads to other sectors, then we will have severe disruption of the supply chain, capitulation, and ultimately collapse.

    Worse, as the national economy begins to recover, Connecticut is still in a very weak position to compete with other states for new business, the TOTAL costs are just too high. Maybe with federal help it is time for real economic reform and structural changes so we can compete again.

    1. Justin, I would be interested in knowing the dollar amount being sent to the state to cover the salaries and expenses in the state’s budget as compared to the $50 million the governor has offered to small businesses. I suspect the state reimbursement is in the billions while businesses get next to nothing.

      1. They asked for $100 billion between NY, CT, NJ and PA. Links …

        https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-20/new-jersey-reports-890-positive-coronavirus-tests-11-deaths

        http://d31hzlhk6di2h5.cloudfront.net/20200320/25/d5/4b/6a/27da97f2c19a7ce8647e0b45/Joint_ltr_to_Pres_Trump_w_Signatures_.pdf

        It is really embarrassing that CT put together a that tiny little fund ($25M and then $50 million) when we have a $21+ billion ANNUAL budget. It just sends the wrong message to thousands of business owners who risk a lot staying here and now have a very serious decision to make – take loans using personal guarantees and their homes as collateral or shut down for a while and hopefully open back up someday (but probably not here).

      2. The states are given ONLY funds to help cover the costs directly related to the COVID-19 virus; they get NOTHING to help cover the massive hole in revenues that they are confronting. Governor Cuomo has laid this out with real clarity.

    2. As the NYC and Boston metros are thriving (or were before the pandemic) but have costs as high or higher than CT. Moreover, E&Y do an annual analysis of business tax burdens: Connecticut consistently rates as one of the LOWEST tax burdens for business in the nation. Yes, we have an inordinate dependency on property taxes, but even there the largest burdens are on our poorest citizens; the tax incidence analysis done (ONCE–never to be repeated again) showed CT has a very very regressive tax structure when considered holistically, with high income households (living typically in towns with very low mill rates) paying a fairly modest rate while low income households paid as much as 20% in state and local taxes.

      The reality is that CT’s lost decade (state GDP is about where it was in 2005) was driven by some poor policy choices and failure to appreciate the changing nature of the competitive environment, especially in IT infrastructure. CT was competitive in 2008, but fell far far behind.

      1. Professor with all due respect, I have repeatedly pointed out to you in other posts that the E&Y report DOES NOT factor in TOTAL COST only TAXES. That survey has been debunked as laughable by many leaders in the business community. It is important to note that Democrats Leaders, especially Sen. Looney use that single study as a benchmark during election years when it is NOT a benchmark. You know there are dozens of other studies and reports documenting the root causes of our slow GDP growth AND state taxes is only ONE axis – please expand your analysis to include more data, especially when discussing competitiveness.

      2. You don’t address the question of why all our adjacent states, all of which have comparable or higher costs, had done quite well since 2008. All had fully recovered in employment and state GDP; only CT saw its economy shrink. The clear difference is that NY, MA, and RI were all adjusting their development policies and strategies to be competitive in the evolving global framework. Notably, Mayor Bloomberg pursued a highly successful strategy of making NYC much more competitive in high tech and IT. CT went the other direction, ignoring IT, failing to pursue coherent economic development policies, and the deeply damaging hospital tax.

        If you have some specifics, please lay them out. My argument is that it is NOT taxes that are the singular driver of CT’s malaise: it can’t be as comparable neighboring states have done well. There has to be something else happening in CT. I point to part of that story above.

  2. This is a good beginning of the discussion we need to have about how the State (i.e. our government) is going to develop a coherent, integrated strategy to help restore our economy. Part of that discussion should be about the multi-billion dollar bonding capacity the state has at hand. Governor Lamont should subject every bonding proposal to a dynamic economic impact analysis and integrate the bonding process with the broader economic recovery strategy. One of the uses of bonding has been to help communities build new schools…a fine objective, but one which does nothing to make CT more competitive. But bonding to improve the quality and thus competitiveness of our ports (e.g. New London) has a measurable impact on the state’s future competitiveness. DECD houses the appropriate methodology and has an excellent lead economist deeply experienced in using it; if we have a holistic, integrated economic recovery strategy, State initiatives can help us not simply getting back to where we were but restore our lost competitiveness.

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