The Hartford lawmaker who lost his battle for tax reform with Gov. Ned Lamont opened Wednesday’s final budget debate with an inflammatory critique that likened the impact of the resulting fiscal plan on the Black community to the police killing of George Floyd, the crime that set off a national debate over criminal and economic justice.
Sen. John Fonfara, who normally would be advocating the merits of the $46.4 billion biennial budget as co-chair of the tax-writing committee, instead questioned the state’s commitment to addressing longstanding racial inequities, a criticism that could be interpreted as directed to his Democratic colleagues as well as Lamont.
“The murder of George Floyd generated an unprecedented response from many across the state. It did so primarily because of our ability to see Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes,” Fonfara said.
Fonfara said the decision not to tap revenue recently amassed by Connecticut to reverse gaps in education, health care, housing and economic opportunity was a moral failure.
“The status quo, the status quo budget, leaves us with status quo results. When our policies fail to address [the needs] in a sustained way, it’s as though we have –,” Fonfara hesitated. Then he continued and said, “Our policies are a knee on the neck of the Black community and other underserved communities of our state. We can do better, and we must do better.”
Fonfara ultimately voted for the budget, which the Senate passed 31-4 about 6:30 p.m. following a 4 1/2-hour debate.
Lamont told reporters the budget has made progress that has eluded lawmakers for decades, a dig at the long-serving Fonfara. He said a lawmaker in office for three decades should look inward, not complain about a governor in his third year.
“I take exception to those comments,” Lamont said. “I think this is an incredibly important, transformative budget. I think it makes a big difference in people’s lives, especially the lives of people hardest hit by the pandemic, especially in the lives of Black and brown people, the likes of which hasn’t been done for 30 years. And I think you’re finally getting done right now.”
Watching was his chief of staff, Paul Mounds, his budget director, Melissa McCaw, and his spokesman, Max Reiss. After Lamont’s sharp response to Fonfara, Reiss and McCaw bumped fists.
“It’s a bold, progressive budget. And we do this without any tax increases,” Lamont had said Tuesday, shortly before the House began its debate. “That was a promise that I made early on. And it’s a promise we’ve kept. And it’s a promise we’ve kept to folks who deserve that chance, deserve that opportunity.”
Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, the co-chair of Appropriations, and House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, each defended the budget as meeting myriad needs, including money to equalize education spending among rich and poor communities, recruit minority teachers, build housing and increase opportunities in cities for job training and counseling.
“I don’t see how he could conclude that.” Walker said of Fonfara’s assessment. “There were many items in the budget that talk to the Black and brown community. It also talks to the poor community, talks to the rural community.”
Fonfara was one of the many lawmakers who questioned Lamont’s legislative acumen in early 2019. Unlike many colleagues, he did so on the record. Fonfara felt repeatedly snubbed by the governor’s first chief of staff, as well as the governor.
“I think that there’s a relationship gap between him and the governor,” Ritter said.
The House of Representatives approved the two-year state budget shortly after midnight Wednesday on a 116-31 vote, sending it to the Senate for final passage on the last day of the legislative session. Twenty-two out of 53 Republicans joined 94 Democrats in the first bipartisan budget vote since 2018.
Fonfara pushed hard this year for an unprecedented redistribution of wealth through the state tax code.
The Finance Committee recommended two state income tax surcharges on households earning more than $500,000 per year and a digital media ads tax aimed at online giants like Google and Facebook. Revenues from these increases would have been returned to the poor in two ways: by expanding income tax refunds for the poor and by investing hundreds of millions of dollars annually in the state’s poorest cities, both for capital projects and to expand services.
But Lamont, a Greenwich businessman and fiscal moderate, staunchly opposes raising state taxes on the wealthy, arguing it would cause these families to flee the state, and it was Lamont who won the day.
The governor has called the new state budget “transformative,” given the many investments it makes in social services, health care, education and municipal aid.
Fonfara said the overwhelming bulk of these investments are paid for not with state resources but with temporary federal coronavirus pandemic relief that expires in 2024.
When that day comes and the federal aid vanishes, the Hartford lawmaker asked, what happens?
The final budget plan does cut income taxes on the poor — about half as much, though, as the Finance Committee recommended. And while a five-year urban relief program was approved — using a combination of borrowed state dollars and federal grants — Fonfara said this too is just a fraction of what Connecticut could do for the poor if it had the will to act.
“We can make those investments and not change the lives of those that were asked to contribute a little bit more,” he said.
Fonfara also used the governor’s own words against him, quoting something Lamont said shortly after the murder of Floyd, who was Black, by Minneapolis police.
“The governor said at that time, ‘I look forward to working with the legislature in the coming regular  session to address the huge economic inequities in Connecticut,” Fonfara said.
Progressive Democrats in Connecticut demanded an overhaul last June of police accountability rules and massive new investments in poor Black and Latinx communities and an overhaul of police accountability rules.
What they got in the July special session that followed were police reforms — but virtually no new dollars.
Lamont had noted Connecticut’s economy was in chaos in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and it was unclear what resources the state could bring to bear.
Connecticut did have more than 390,000 filers receiving weekly unemployment benefits at one point last spring, and the number didn’t slip below 200,000 until earlier this spring.
But over the last year, the stock markets have boomed and state income tax receipts and other revenues have surged repeatedly.
Connecticut entered the pandemic with $2 billion in its emergency budget reserve, grew that cushion to more than $3 billion and expects to close the current fiscal year on June 30 with another $1.4 billion left over.