Matt Ritter’s urban revitalization pitch is based on UConn’s renewal program
The transformation of the University of Connecticut’s crumbling infrastructure into a vibrant, modern campus began when lawmakers made the flagship institution the top priority for state borrowing.
Now House Speaker Matt Ritter wants to repeat UConn 2000’s success with the poorest urban centers in Connecticut.
The Hartford Democrat this week unveiled a plan to set aside hundreds of millions of dollars in annual borrowing – possibly up to $ 2 billion over the next decade – to invest in both infrastructure and programs to make Connecticut cities vibrant.
The proposal is also designed to break the deadlock between Governor Ned Lamont and the legislature’s finance, income and bonds committee on how best to help some of the state’s most vulnerable communities.
“There is no doubt that people remember the program, remember what it did for UConn,” said Ritter, whose father, Thomas Ritter, was Speaker of the House when lawmakers launched the program. reconstruction of the university in 1995.
Rather than competing each year for a share of the annual bond package – billions of dollars in proposed loans split between municipal school construction, maintenance of public buildings, economic development programs, open space and farmland preservation and other programs – UConn had its separate funding program for over the past two and a half decades.
Lawmakers developed a similar priority borrowing plan for regional state universities and community colleges in 2007.
And Ritter said urban centers in Connecticut, which were overwhelmed by poverty, oppressive property taxes and few economic opportunities even before the coronavirus hit them hard last year, have a “critical need” that does not deserve less attention.
The goal is to “continue an annual investment of funds, both for infrastructure and for investing in people and programs,” said Ritter, “not subject to the ups and downs” of the annual budgeting process.
Funding for higher education capital programs is generally approved for eight years or more at a time. And although it has at times been adjusted midway through very difficult economic times, governors and legislatures have traditionally not tampered with these initiatives once they are launched. Borrowing is a tool that Connecticut and most other states frequently use to fund multi-year capital programs.
But Ritter also has a political reason, as well as a pragmatic one, to turn to the state credit card.
Lamont and the progressive Democrats on the finance committee who write the taxes have been at odds for more than a month on urban aid.
The committee, and Senate Speaker John Fonfara in particular, lobbied for a series of tax hikes on the rich and big business to fund major investments in cities and also pay a tax credit. on Expanded Income for the Working Poor of Connecticut.
Fonfara, a Democrat from Hartford, said he is considering a program that not only invests in capital projects, but provides cities with income to support basic services such as health care, affordable housing and the economic development.
But Lamont said he would not sign a state budget based on the tax hikes recommended by the finance committee. The governor, a businessman from Greenwich, has repeatedly said he opposes increasing state taxes exclusively on the wealthy, arguing that it will cause them to flee the state.
The governor’s response to the pandemic has been largely funded by federal aid, while the state’s own tax reserves have swelled over the past year.
At a press conference earlier this year, Fonfara said the nearly $ 3 billion in federal funds the state government would receive over the next two years through the American Rescue Plan Act , “As important as they are, are neither sufficient nor supported to address the system challenges we face as a state.
Connecticut cities have suffered for decades, Fonfara said, adding that “the status quo policy will produce status quo results.”
Ritter, who hopes to reach some common ground, said his plan might not require as many new taxes as Fonfara wanted, although the speaker was also careful not to withdraw the committee’s proposals. table finances.
Ritter said his plan could easily be tweaked into a hybrid program that invests both borrowed dollars and income from further tax hikes to revitalize cities.
And while the Lamont administration declined to comment, the speaker was optimistic all parties could find common ground.
“We have compromised, but we also need him [Lamont] to meet us, ”said Ritter.
The speaker’s proposal was quickly approved by members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus of the General Assembly.
“I don’t care if it’s money or bond money [raised] on taxes, ”said Sen. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, who said he didn’t want Connecticut to waste another opportunity to reverse racial inequalities in education, health care, housing and economic opportunities that have worsened for decades.
“This is why we are here today in 2021 with the same problems we had in 1968,” he said.
Representative Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, co-chair of the caucus, noted that the pandemic led the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates in 2020, making borrowing more affordable than it has been for many. years.
But Reyes and McCrory have both said that while lawmakers don’t tackle tax reform this year, it’s a debate that cannot be postponed indefinitely.
“I also think the burden is on the middle class,” Reyes added. “I think the rich can pay a little more.”