To promote a Community Investment Fund that could make $875 million available to distressed communities over five years, the office of Gov. Ned Lamont chose a sunny lawn outside a library branch in a Black neighborhood represented by House Speaker Matt Ritter and Sen. Doug McCrory of Hartford.
Ritter is one of the program’s architects, fashioning what he saw as a marriage of good policy and good politics — providing a stable funding source for needy legislative districts and easing a source of friction between lawmakers and the governor approaching an election.
McCrory is one of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus members who had been chafing against the “debt diet” Lamont proudly announced in February 2019, his second month in office. An initial 39% cut in borrowing that Lamont, a Greenwich businessman, saw as healthy for the fiscal waistline was seen by urban Democrats as starvation rations.
“This debt diet didn’t sit well in communities that were underserved to begin with,” said Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr., D-Waterbury, the chair of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “So basically, you’re saying, ‘No one’s going to eat.’”
On Thursday afternoon, Reyes was one of the lawmakers to greet the governor as he alighted from a black SUV wearing aviator sunglasses but no jacket or tie. A branch library on Albany Avenue in Hartford was providing the backdrop, but Waterbury is among the eligible beneficiaries.
“This right here is a major step in the right direction,” Reyes said after the event, describing the fund’s impact on distressed communities and his caucus’ relationship with Lamont. “This was a major step in restoring and improving the relationship with the BPRC [Black and Puerto Rican Caucus] members.”
McCrory, who used to teach school in the neighborhood, offered a made-for-a-political ad compliment about Lamont’s role in making the Community Investment Fund a reality.
“This is an investment by the state of Connecticut under the leadership of Gov. Ned Lamont,” McCrory said. “I’ve been in the legislature for 17 years, and at no time have we ever committed to make this kind of investment in communities that have been underserved for years.”
The General Assembly shapes the borrowing priorities of Connecticut with the passage of a bond package, a list of projects and programs with a specific dollar amount of authorized borrowing.
But by setting the agenda of the Bond Commission, which must bless the actual borrowing before the treasurer goes to the bond markets, governors in Connecticut have sole control of the degree to which the legislature’s bond package is a wish list or a source of money.
And that is a longstanding source of tension between lawmakers and governors, well beyond the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. Lawmakers can succeed in getting a local project in the bond package, only to see a governor refuse to place the item on the agenda of the Bond Commission.
The Community Investment Fund will be administered by a 21-member board run by lawmakers. Ritter and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, are the co-chairs. McCrory is one of two members representing the BPRC, one from the Senate and House.
The funding still has to get through the Bond Commission, but the commission cannot stall a project by inaction. Lamont said he was more than comfortable with sharing some of the spending responsibilities.
“I’m willing to put money to work as long as it’s real,” Lamont said. “And if it’s focused in and around opportunity and economic development, and as part of a strategy, sign me up. And I think that’s what this program is.”
With the start of the fiscal year on July 1, the first of five $175 million pools of funds will become available. Eligible municipalities and non-profits in those communities can apply for grants for capital projects, not personnel or programmatic expenses.
Fifty-four of Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns are eligible, according to the DECD. They include the biggest cities that are Democratic strongholds, as well as small eastern Connecticut communities represented by Republicans.
The 21-member board, which is staffed by the Department of Economic and Community Development and is composed of 10 lawmakers and 11 representatives of the administration and other constitutional officers, expects to make two rounds of awards every fiscal year.
“We are already off to the races. The application’s already available,” said Alexandra Daum, the deputy commissioner and chief investment officer of DECD.
The first round of applications closes on July 25, with a second round scheduled in January. Matt Pugliese, the director of the fund, said more than 500 people participated in two webinars explaining the program.
Ritter said there was skepticism among those who negotiated the terms of the new fund about the willingness of the “debt diet” governor and his administration to embrace the additional spending and the degree to which decision-making would be shared.
“They have far exceeded my expectations,” Ritter said, noting the staffing assigned to the program. “I think even a lot of members who were in that room, mostly BPRC members who were negotiating this, one of the concerns was, ‘Yeah, we’ll see if it actually comes to fruition now.’”
Ritter said the program will allow municipalities to make long-range planning for projects that could be transformative.
“Maybe it’s on their Main Street, maybe it’s in brownfields,” Ritter said. “But to do that, you need a constant stream of funding and the ability to plan five, 10 years out. And it’s hard to do that when maybe the governor likes you, maybe he doesn’t; maybe you have a legislator who’s powerful, maybe you don’t.”
Some of the skepticism remains.
“People are going to be a little bit concerned that what they’re seeing now is good. But why are we talking about it now?” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, a Black and Puerto Rican Caucus member not in attendance. “Why weren’t we talking about it two years ago? And what are we going to be talking about next year?”
How people feel about those questions carry weight in an election year in which an incumbent Democrat will need a decent urban turnout. Lamont won by 44,000 votes and 3 percentage points over Republican Bob Stefanowski, his opponent again this year.
Stefanowski carried a majority of the communities but lost by huge margins in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Stamford.
Reyes said the Community Investment Fund could be crucial to Waterbury, whose proud past as a brass manufacturing center has produced a problematic present. The city is dotted with old sites that need environmental remediation. Per-capita income is $25,000, and one in five of its 114,000 residents lives in poverty.
Lamont carried Waterbury in 2018 with 54% of the vote. But Stefanowski and Republicans are making a push to close that margin, opening a headquarters in the city. They also are planning one in Bridgeport.