Sen. Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford, addressed the upcoming rollout of Connecticut's new baby bonds program, as Treasurer Erick Russell and Gov. Ned Lamont look on. Andrew Brown / CT Mirror

Connecticut officials gathered in downtown Hartford on Wednesday to officially launch a new “baby bonds” program, an initiative that was created to combat income inequality and to break the cycles of systemic poverty in the state.

Many of Connecticut’s most prominent political figures gathered in a wing of Hartford Hospital to celebrate the new program, which, despite its strong support among the Democratic majority in the legislature, was nearly killed by Gov. Ned Lamont’s initial refusal to borrow money for it.

But that infighting was a thing of the past on Wednesday.

Numerous speakers took the stage to laud the recent funding for the program, which will invest $3,200 for every child that is born after July 1, 2023 and is eligible for the state’s Medicaid program.

Those investments will be managed by the state until the children turn 18, at which point the recipients will be able to use the money to buy a home, pay for college, start a business or save for retirement — the type of financial assistance that children from wealthier households often receive from their parents or families.

The state estimates that more than 15,000 children in the state could be eligible for the baby bonds each year, and each recipient could eventually end up with between $11,000 and $24,000.

“So many families in Connecticut — communities like this one — they don’t have any assets sitting in an account,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin told the crowd gathered at the hospital. “Most kids don’t have something to fall back on or to draw on when it’s time for them to take that first step to buy a home, or start a business, or to go on with education.”

The press briefing provided a victory lap for the program’s supporters several days before the first newborns in Connecticut will be enrolled for the benefits.

State leaders, health care officials and the directors of several community organizations compared to the program to the creation of the federal Medicare program in 1966, and they referred to the new initiative as an “extraordinary intervention,” a “courageous innovation” and a “step forward” in the fight against income inequality.

But several speakers — including Lamont — also hinted at the earlier political infighting within the Democratic party that nearly crippled the program before it began.

The Democratic majority in the Connecticut General Assembly passed the baby bonds bill in June 2021 at the behest of former state Democratic Treasurer Shawn Wooden, who made the social program a key priority during his tenure.

But implementation of the program was quickly thrown into doubt after Gov. Lamont and his staff objected to the idea of borrowing more than $50 million a year to fund the program and internally communicated plans to kill the baby bonds program entirely.

The Connecticut Mirror published an investigation in January 2023 that highlighted the behind-the-scenes feud that broke out over the financing for baby bonds between Wooden and the governor’s staff.

Emails and text messages showed Lamont’s former chief of staff and his new general counsel discussed their desire to persuade state Treasurer Erick Russell, who was elected in 2022, to abandon his support for baby bonds.

The opposite occurred after the CT Mirror story was published, however.

As he entered office, Russell ran a publicity campaign throughout the state, travelling to low-income communities in Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury to promote baby bonds and to generate political support for the initiative.

The Democratic lawmakers in the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus also renewed their support for baby bonds, and they insisted the money needed to fund the program over the first 12 years be included in a state funding bill this year.

That push resulted in an eventual compromise between lawmakers and the Lamont administration that redirected hundred of millions of dollars in reserve funds to cover part of the programs costs.

Russell and others credited Lamont on Wednesday for coming to the bargaining table and eventually agreeing to that deal.

“I want to give a special thank you to Gov. Lamont, who has been a great partner in this process,” Russell said. “Gov. Lamont and I challenged each other. We had a lot of robust conversation about the best way to get here today.”

“As many of you have probably seen in politics, people are interested in the short-term game a lot of times — what’s going to impact the next election cycle,” Russell added. “And I think it took so much political courage to make this long-term investment in our future.”

Lamont, who is in his second term as governor, said he was convinced to support the funding for the new program because of conversations that he had with lawmakers like Sen. Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford.

Lamont said Miller, who is a leader in the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, repeatedly referred to the baby bonds program as “an investment in hope,” which the governor said stuck with him.

“We want Connecticut to be the state of opportunity,” Lamont said. “And you learn in life that talent is widely distributed, and opportunity, not so much. And we are doing everything we can to make sure that everybody gets their fair shot at the starting line of life, and I think that’s what baby bonds are about.”

Miller, who grew up in a low-income family with six siblings, said the children who become eligible for baby bonds starting next month will hopefully receive a better shot at building wealth as young adults.

“This is a new year, a new beginning for these children born into poverty,” Miller said.

AJ Johnson, a member of the Hartford Board of Education and a pastor in the north end of the city, agreed that the baby bonds program is likely to have a lasting effect on his friends and neighbors.

Many people in the north end, he said, don’t have enough wealth to be able to provide their children with college tuition or a down payment on a house. But he said the baby bonds could change that for thousands of families.

Johnson said he is excited to share that news with the pregnant mothers and young families in his church.

“This is big for my community,” said Johnson who was at the press conference. “I show up for good legislation, and this is good legislation.”

Andrew joined CT Mirror as an investigative reporter in July 2021. Prior to moving to Connecticut, Andrew was a reporter at newspapers in North Dakota, West Virginia and most recently South Carolina. He’s covered business, utilities, environmental issues, the opioid crisis, local government and two state legislatures. Do you have a story tip? Reach Andrew at 843-592-9958