The transformation of the University of Connecticut’s crumbling infrastructure into a vibrant, modern campus began when legislators gave the flagship institution top priority when it came to state borrowing nearly three decades ago.
Now House Speaker Matt Ritter wants to repeat the success of UConn 2000 with Connecticut’s poorest urban centers.
The Hartford Democrat this week unveiled a plan to reserve hundreds of millions of dollars in annual borrowing — possibly as much as $2 billion over the next decade — to invest in both infrastructure and programs to make Connecticut’s cities vibrant.
The proposal also is designed to break down gridlock between Gov. Ned Lamont and the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee over how best to assist some of the state’s most vulnerable communities.
“There’s no question that people remember the program, remember what it did for UConn,” said Ritter, whose father, Thomas Ritter, was House Speaker when lawmakers launched the university’s rebuilding program in 1995.
Rather than compete every year for a share of the annual bond package — billions of dollars in proposed borrowing distributed among municipal school construction, state building maintenance, economic development programs, open space and farmland preservation and other programs — UConn had its separate financing program for the past two-and-a-half decades.
Legislators carved out a similar priority-borrowing plan for the regional state universities and community colleges in 2007.
And Ritter said that Connecticut’s urban centers, which were overwhelmed by poverty, oppressive property taxes and few economic opportunities even before the coronavirus hit them hard last year, have a “critical need” that deserves no less focus.
The goal is “to continue an annual investment of funds, both for infrastructure and investing in people and programs,” Ritter said, “not subject to the highs and lows” of the annual budgeting process.
Financing for the higher education capital programs typically is approved for eight years at a time or more. And while it has occasionally been adjusted mid-stream in very difficult economic times, governors and legislatures traditionally have not tampered with those initiatives once set in motion. Borrowing is a tool Connecticut and most other states use frequently to finance capital programs over multiple years.
But Ritter also has a political reason, as well as a pragmatic one, for looking to the state’s credit card.
Lamont and progressive Democrats on the tax-writing finance committee have been at odds for more than a month on urban assistance.
The committee, and Senate chairman John Fonfara in particular, has been pushing for a series of tax hikes on the wealthy and on large corporations to finance major investments in cities and also pay for an expanded state income tax credit for Connecticut’s working poor.
Fonfara, a Hartford Democrat, said he envisions a program that not only invests in capital projects but provides cities with revenues to support core services like health care, affordable housing and economic development.
But Lamont said he wouldn’t sign a state budget based on the tax hikes recommended by the finance panel. The governor, a Greenwich businessman, has said repeatedly that he opposes raising state taxes exclusively on the wealthy, arguing it would prompt them to flee the state.
The governor’s response to the pandemic largely has been financed with federal aid, while the state’s own fiscal reserves have swelled over the past year.
At a press conference earlier this year, Fonfara said the nearly $3 billion in federal funds that the state government will receive over the next two years through the American Rescue Plan Act, “substantial as they are, are not sufficient nor sustained to address the system challenges we face as a state.”
Connecticut’s cities have suffered for decades, Fonfara said, adding that “the status quo policy will produce status quo results.”
Ritter, who hopes to achieve middle ground, said his plan might not require as much in new taxes as Fonfara sought, though the speaker also was careful not to take any finance committee proposals off the table.
Ritter said his plan could easily be modified into a hybrid program that invests both borrowed dollars and revenue from new tax hikes to revitalize the cities.
And while the Lamont administration declined to comment, the speaker was optimistic all sides could find common ground.
“We’ve compromised some, but we also need him [Lamont] to meet us,” Ritter said.
The speaker’s proposal quickly drew endorsements from members of the General Assembly’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.
“I don’t care if it’s bonded money or money [raised] on taxes,” said Sen. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, who said he doesn’t want Connecticut to squander another opportunity to reverse racial inequalities in education, health care, housing and economic opportunity that have festered for decades.
“That’s why we’re here today in 2021 with the same issues we had in 1968,” he said.
Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, co-chairman of the caucus, noted the pandemic led the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates in 2020, making borrowing more affordable than it’s been in many years.
But both Reyes and McCrory said that even if legislators don’t tackle tax reform this year, it’s a debate that can’t be postponed forever.
“I also feel the burden is on the middle class,” Reyes added. “I believe the rich can pay a little more.”