State comptroller candidate Sean Scanlon challenged Connecticut’s next governor and legislature this week to fully fund a pandemic bonus system for essential private-sector workers that appears short on funds.
Scanlon, a Democratic state representative from Guilford, said it’s become clear that the $30 million that legislators and Gov. Ned Lamont designated for the Premium Pay Program won’t provide the $1,000 bonuses many state officials promised.
“It’s clear we need more money,” Scanlon told the CT Mirror Monday. “We should find the necessary funding to meet people where they thought they should be.”
The program, approved by lawmakers and Lamont in early May, offers a $1,000 bonus to full-time essential workers who earn $100,000 or less. Those earning more than $100,000 but less than $150,000 are eligible for grants on a sliding scale, ranging as low as $200.
Part-timers — working less than 30 hours per week — can apply for a $500 grant.
But Lamont and lawmakers only budgeted $30 million for the program, despite warnings from labor advocates that this would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The program could not — by simple math — provide more than 30,000 bonuses of $1,000 each.
To make the dollars stretch, state officials stipulated that if demand exceeds resources, the state will reduce all grants proportionally.
In the first 19 days since the comptroller’s office launched the Premium Pay application portal, nearly 200,000 workers have requested applications — and more than 72,000 already have completed them.
And the application deadline doesn’t close until Oct. 1.
Ed Hawthorne, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, praised Scanlon for recognizing that state officials need to deliver the full grants that were advertised — and not just a portion of them.
“There was an invisible virus that was killing people, and these people went into work,” said Hawthorne, whose organization had proposed bonuses of $2,000. “One thousand dollars is the least we can do for them.”
The Premium Pay Program is open only to private-sector workers from occupations from categories “1A” or “1B” of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccination priority lists.
Some of the front line workers in these categories include health care personnel, food and agricultural workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store staff, public transit workers, teachers and child care personnel.
The new legislature and the winner of this fall’s gubernatorial contest between Lamont, a Democrat, and Republican businessman Bob Stefanowski of Madison should expedite additional funding for Premium Pay right after the regular 2023 session starts on Jan. 4, Scanlon said.
Lamont was noncommittal Tuesday when asked about Scanlon’s proposal.
“The administration will review proposals introduced during the next legislative session and will work with legislative leaders at that time to pass measures that are in the best interest of Connecticut families and businesses,” said Chris Collibee, spokesman for the governor’s budget office.
House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said last week that he was open to boosting funding for Premium Pay, though he didn’t commit to a specific level.
And Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, echoed those sentiments Tuesday. “We want to make sure we’re not giving a token payment to people who put themselves at risk.”
The top Republicans in the House and Senate, Vincent Candelora and Kevin Kelly, said legislators and the next governor should focus on adopting many of the broad-based tax cuts that Republicans proposed last May.
These included the first cut in state income tax rates since the mid-1990s.
“What the Democrats are not recognizing is the complete, systemic failure of their rebates and the one-time gimmicks for taxpayers,” Candelora said.
Kelly said he remains open to more funding for Premium Pay, but the state Capitol needs to focus much more on delivering relief to all of Connecticut.
“Middle- and working-class families in Connecticut need a break,” he said, “they don’t need more promises from a majority that doesn’t fulfill them.”
The Republican candidate for comptroller, financial services executive Mary Fay of West Hartford, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Stefanowski told the CT Mirror last week that Connecticut should focus on the broad-based tax relief that Republican legislators proposed last year.
Regarding the problems facing various COVID-19 financial relief programs, Stefanowski said, “Gov. Lamont primarily is concerned about making a bunch of promises to get re-elected, and he could care less about the execution of these programs and getting money to people who need it desperately.”
Democrats counter that the $660 million tax relief package Lamont and the legislature adopted last spring represents one of the largest tax cuts in state history and that while the GOP likes to criticize coronavirus aid programs, it didn’t offer many proposals of its own.
Scanlon conceded that fully funding the Premium Pay Program could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, though he said it’s unlikely to approach the $750 million budget the legislature’s Labor Committee recommended for a Premium Pay Program.
The state set up a second program to aid front line workers that might provide some resources for Premium Pay. The Essential Workers COVID-19 Assistance Program was launched in January with $34 million to help workers who lost wages or incurred medical costs because of the coronavirus. But the program stalled because of a complicated application process and has approved only about $560,000 in aid in nearly eight months.
If most of those dollars remain unspent, Scanlon said, $30 million or more might be reassigned to Premium Pay.
The state also has $3.3 billion in its emergency budget reserve, and the $24.2 billion budget approved for the current fiscal year was crafted with a built-in General Fund surplus projection of nearly $300 million.
Scanlon didn’t propose tapping the rainy day fund or the surplus, but neither did he dismiss those ideas.
“I don’t think anything should be ruled out,” Scanlon said. “I think everything should be on the table.”