The state Capitol in Hartford, seen from inside the Legislative Office Building. / File photo, CTMirror.org

By Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org

The General Assembly adopted an omnibus measure in a special session Monday that extends Connecticut’s gasoline tax holiday, bolsters funding for winter heating assistance, discounts previously advertised pandemic bonuses for essential workers and makes a technical change to the bottle deposit program.

The Democrat-controlled Senate unanimously approved the bill 33-0 shortly after 9 p.m. Monday. The House, which Democrats also control, had overwhelmingly passed it 134-7 just before 5 p.m.

Connecticut, which has been waiving its 25-cents-per-gallon retail tax on gasoline since April 1, was scheduled to end the holiday Nov. 30.

But the measure approved Monday will waive the full tax through Dec. 31.

It then begins to reinstate the tax by 5 cents per month: a 5-cent retail tax on gasoline in January, 10 cents per gallon in February, 15 cents in March, 20 cents in April and the full 25 cents starting May 1.

The state also has been waiving fees on Connecticut transit buses since April, and that relief also was supposed to expire Nov. 30. But under the new bill, the waiver will continue through March 31.

Gov. Ned Lamont also has endorsed this extended gas tax and bus fare holiday and is expected to sign the measure into law.

Retail prices for regular gasoline hovered around $4.30 per gallon on April 1 when suspension of the gas tx began and peaked on June 14 at $4.98 per gallon, according to the AAA.

But after a summer of declines, the price began to creep upward this fall. The $3.65 per gallon price that the AAA reported last Wednesday for Connecticut is 10 cents higher than the national average.

The cost to the state of waiving the entire 25-cent retail gas tax is about $30 million per month.

Minority Republicans in both chambers tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to waive the entire retail gasoline tax through June 30.

“Our residents need as much relief as possible,” said state Rep. Holly Cheeseman of East Lyme, ranking House Republican on the Finance Committee, who said rising home heating oil and electric bills this winter, by themselves, will strain household budgets.

“Let’s give a little more break,” added state Rep. Jay Case, R-Winsted, who said that a new state highway usage tax starting Jan. 1 on large commercial trucks will exacerbate inflation and drive up the cost of groceries and other goods. “My gosh, we’ve got another tax coming.”

“We are so flush with money I don’t know why we’re taxing anybody,” said state Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, referring to recent projections from Lamont’s budget office that state finances could finish the fiscal year a staggering $2.85 billion in the black, a cushion equal to almost 13 percent of the General Fund.

But Democrats argued that extending the holiday that long could weaken the budget’s Special Transportation Fund over the long term. Democratic leaders said the state would be better served to reassess the gas tax holiday later this spring.

“The state of Connecticut is being responsive” to gasoline prices, said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven. “We’re watching closely.”

The Republican proposal failed 21-12 in the Senate and 88-52 in the House, with both votes following party lines.

Bonuses for pandemic essential workers cut for many

More than half of essential workers in the private sector who qualified for state-funded coronavirus pandemic bonuses will receive discounted payments under modifications adopted Monday.

The Senate voted 33-0 shortly after 9 p.m. Monday to approve the revised bonus schedule for those workers as part of the omnibus measure. The House had passed the measure 134-7 late Monday afternoon.

Leaders of the legislature’s Democratic majority said they had no choice, given the limited funds Lamont would support for the Premium Pay program.

But they also noted that, despite discounts, essential workers who earn less than $50,000 annually still will receive the full $1,000 bonus that was advertised.

Still, others who expected to get $1,000 will get as little as $200, and those who earned between $100,000 and $150,000 per year will get $100.

“Look, there’s a negotiation that happens,” Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said during a late-morning press conference minutes before the House opened the special session at noon. “That’s where we’ve landed.”

Ritter was referring to last-minute negotiations with Lamont to bolster the $30 million budget for Premium Pay for health- and child-care providers, supermarket employees, delivery drivers and other private-sector workers who staffed essential services during the worst of the coronavirus outbreak in 2020.

Despite demand that far outstripped available resources for bonuses — and a $2.85 billion budget surplus projected for the current fiscal year — Lamont has refused to give labor advocates all that they’ve sought for the bonus program.

The administration says private-sector employers share the responsibility to reward these workers.

But businesses counter that it was Lamont and legislators who not only created Premium Pay, but who also badly underfunded the program. State officials advertised grants of $1,000 for full-timers who earned less than $100,000 per year, bonuses ranging from $200 to $800 for those making between $100,000 and $150,000, and a $500 payment for income-eligible part-timers.

While the $30 million program budget couldn’t support more than 28,500 grants of $1,000 each — after marketing and administrative costs were removed — the comptroller’s office reported more than 134,000 applications had been approved.

And late last week, another problem was discovered. State Department of Labor data used to determine eligibility had to be updated, resulting in another 21,000 applications being approved.

More money for heating assistance

A second energy-related component in the bill approved Monday would commit close to $35 million in additional state funds, if necessary, to bolster the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, commonly known as LIHEAP, which helps low-income families cover winter heating and other energy costs.

The program traditionally is funded with federal grants. Connecticut has received about $94 million from Washington this year and has another $6 million carried over from last year’s budget.

Lamont noted that the $135 million state budget for winter energy assistance would match last year’s level.

But energy assistance advocates say that’s far too little and want a LIHEAP budget slightly larger than $200 million. 

According to Operation Fuel, a Hartford-based nonprofit energy assistance group, the energy assistance caseload between July 1 and Oct. 31 is double that of the same period in 2021.

The additional $35 million in state funds would be spent only if Congress doesn’t bolster federal resources for LIHEAP between now and January. 

House Republicans also tried to amend Monday’s bill to push LIHEAP funding upward by more than $90 million.

The GOP proposal also would have created one-time payments for middle-income homeowners and renters who don’t qualify for energy assistance. Republicans specifically proposed a one-time $330 payment for homeowners and $180 payment for renters who earn between 61 and 120 percent of the state’s median income.

According to the United Way of Connecticut’s 2-1-1 Infoline, the median income for a family of four is $127,443. That translates into an eligible income range for this group from $77,740 to $152,931.

Democrats countered that Connecticut never before has used state dollars for LIHEAP, which has always been a federal responsibility.

“We know there is a need, we know that,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford. “But we do not know to what scale.”

Rojas said the legislature should commit a more modest level of state funding now, and then reassess household needs after the regular 2023 General Assembly session convenes on Jan. 4.

But Republicans — and energy assistance advocates — say many poor households will begin immediately rationing not only their heating budget, but also their grocery and medication purchases if they fear they won’t have enough money to warm their homes this winter.

“Cold kills, and we don’t want anyone in Connecticut to have to face that choice,” Cheeseman said.

Democrats rejected the Republican energy assistance amendment 87-52 on a party line vote.

But there could be more assistance on the way through another venue.

Lamont announced Monday that the state’s two electricity distribution utilities, Eversource and United Illuminating, are taking steps to help mitigate surging consumer bills this winter.

Both utilities already dedicate a portion of their revenue from service contracts to help provide relief to low- and moderate-income households. 

The companies filed a motion Monday with state utility regulators to allow them to front-load that relief. In other words, rather than spread out profits to provide bill assistance over the next year, the funds would be focused primarily to mitigate bills for needy households during the winter months.

The two utilities also agreed to donate a total of $13 million — $10 million from Eversource and $3 million from UI — for other energy assistance programs outside of LIHEAP.

Electric costs are projected to rise significantly in 2023 when a major rate increase takes effect.

“I appreciate Eversource and UI working with us to identify creative near-term actions that will help provide Connecticut residents with some relief from high energy costs and the significant impending rate increase on Jan. 1,” Lamont said. 

“Complex issues call for creative solutions, and this public-private partnership paired with the energy assistance actions expected to be taken by the General Assembly in special session today will provide residents with some much-needed relief and protection this winter.”

Extending deadline for bottle deposit labels

A final element in Monday’s omnibus bill was drafted to clear up a technical issue tied to an expansion of the bottle deposit program set to begin Jan. 1.

Stores will begin collecting nickel deposits soon on a new range of bottled products, including: hard cider, plant-infused drinks, juice drinks, tea, coffee, kombucha and sports or energy drinks. The program expansion was approved in 2021.

But because of supply chain issues tied to the coronavirus pandemics, many stores haven’t been able to get these products with the proper new labels identifying the deposit.

The legislation adopted Monday still requires stores to collect the deposit on the new items starting in January, and consumers still will be able to return empties and reclaim their nickels in the new year.

But the legislation would give stores an extra six months, until July 1, to secure the proper labels identifying these items as subject to the deposit program.

The alternative, some legislators said, is that stores might withhold these items for sale.