“There’s always more that we can do,” Scanlon said. “It’s just a question of should we do it. And it’s ironic that the Democratic Party is, in some ways, the party of fiscal restraint at this moment, whereas the Republican nominee for governor and some of his party members of the legislature are acting like Democrats, in some ways, used to act, which is ‘Let’s spend all this money that we have.’”Stefanowski has called for using $1 billion from the surplus for immediate relief by cutting the sales tax from 6.35% to 5.99%, eliminating a 1% tax on prepared foods and suspending taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel. He also would repeal a highway use tax on heavy trucks that takes effect next year.
Connecticut did suspend the 25-cents-per-gallon excise tax on gasoline through Nov. 30, the first state to do so. Its current average price of $4.552 a gallon for regular is the lowest in the Northeast, but still $1.40 higher than a year ago.
Using the money for immediate tax relief instead of paying down Connecticut’s unfunded pension debt is not irresponsible, Stefanowski said.
“If you’re in a household, and you’re barely making enough to pay the mortgage, and you’re barely making enough to feed your family, and you’re canceling your vacation and you’re worried about your electric bill, you don’t make an early pre-payment on your mortgage,” Stefanowski said. “And that’s essentially what he’s doing right now.”
House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said offering more relief not only would have undercut the state’s ability to prepare for a likely recession, but it would have been difficult given the limits imposed by state rules on the use of surplus funds and federal prohibitions against using federal aid for tax cuts.
House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said that is disingenuous, given calculations by non-partisan budget analysts that more cuts were possible without violating federal rules.
“Republicans don’t let that issue go, and we’re not going to,” Candelora said. “The bottom line is that I think they wanted to create a more robust reserve and pension pay-down, because the more you pay down the pension, the more money it frees up in our out-year budgets to spend.”
“Out-year budgets” is legislative speak for future budgets, and Ritter said caution now, even if it exposes Democrats to election-year attacks, could save draconian cuts next year.
“We could make a lot of disingenuous decisions today that would mean in a year or two we were cutting ECS [education aid to towns] funding or cutting mental health for children or child care investments,” Ritter said.
Two fiscal moderates among Democrats seeking reelection to the state House said Friday they are comfortable running on the relief their party crafted.
“I feel like most of what I talk about all the time is pocketbook issues,” said Rep. Jaime Foster, D-Ellington, whose seat was long in GOP hands before she won an open race in 2020 in the 57th House District of Ellington and East Windsor.
Foster said she has knocked on 750 doors so far, and the conversations are longer this year than two years ago in the district, a farming region north of Hartford that has become more suburban in recent decades.
“When it comes to inflation and the child tax credits, I am getting mixed feedback,” Foster said.
Older voters note that credit is not helpful to them, an opening for a broader conversation about their pensions about to become exempt from the state income tax and the increased state aid that is keeping property taxes level in many towns, she said.
“There’s something for everyone in that budget,” she said. “When we talk about inflation, the best thing that I can tell folks is that our budget did tremendous things for local [finances]. I delivered more money to my two towns than have been delivered in something like 15 years.”
Rep. Kerry Wood, D-Rocky Hill, a fiscal moderate who sometimes breaks with her party, voted for the budget as a source of direct and indirect tax relief. Two of the three towns in her district, Newington and Wethersfield, did not raise taxes.
But she acknowledged that inflation has changed the messaging. To constituents, she characterizes the tax cuts as an offset to higher prices, not a means to get ahead financially.
“They understand we’re in an inflationary period,” Kerry said. “It’s not going to last forever, but it is the way it is right now. And we’re going to do the best we can navigate ourselves out of it.”
On Wednesday, before he left for the National Governors Association meeting in Maine, Lamont said inflation was “slamming” consumers, but a drop in some prices of commodities offers hope inflation will begin to subside.
Scanlon said he shares the governor’s optimism, noting gasoline prices in Connecticut have fallen by 43 cents a gallon in the past 30 days. He also noted that child-tax rebates will go out in August in time for back-to-school shopping, a bit of relief that might improve voter moods.
But there also will be three more updates in the Consumer Price Index before voters go to the polls.