At a sewage plant, a whiff of political hopes for Lamont and Biden
MERIDEN — The ambitions of Gov. Ned Lamont and the administration of President Joe Biden converged Thursday at this city’s sewage treatment plant, a symbol of the massive infrastructure spending on its way from Washington.
Isabella Casillas Guzman, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, visited the plant on a tour promoting the reach of the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill Biden signed last month.
The president says the spending will transform America’s outdated roads, bridges, transit systems, water systems, and broadband. Unsaid is the hope of Democrats that it also will transform Biden’s approval rating going into the mid-term elections.
Lamont welcomed Guzman and announced that Mark Boughton, a Republican and his commissioner of revenue services, will take on the added task coordinating the infrastructure spending over the next five or six years, a timeline that assumes the Democratic governor’s reelection in 2022.
“This is so much money,” Lamont said. “And I don’t know how other states are thinking about it, but if they just hand it out to every department to do your own thing, or if I have 187 legislators say, ‘I’ve got an idea,’ at the end of year five, you’re not gonna know what you accomplished. We’re gonna accomplish something with it, and Mark’s gonna help us do that.”
The Meriden sewage plant chosen as the backdrop for a press conference is in the midst of a multi-phase $40 million upgrade to improve the quality of outflow to the Quinnipiac River. It is being financed by state and federal funds, coordinated by the local officials.
Katie Dykes, the commissioner of energy and environmental protection, said the joint project is emblematic of what is to come.
“The good news is under the bipartisan infrastructure law, we’re going to have an infusion of funding,” she said. “The federal government is going to be increasing their support with these types of projects that we can accelerate, transitioning this age-old infrastructure to modern infrastructure that’s going to better protect the environment, better protect our communities, and better withstand some of these impacts from climate change.”
Guzman, who is the highest-ranking Latina in the Biden administration as the cabinet-level SBA administrator, used the stop in Meriden to promote the opportunities the bipartisan infrastructure law offers to smaller businesses owned by women, minorities and veterans.
She said Lamont’s administration is working with the federal government on a common set of qualifications for vendors to bid on the contracts, an effort to reverse what Guzman described as a precipitous drop in small businesses contracting with the federal government.
“We’ve seen a decline of 40% over the last 10 years in the number of small businesses doing business with the federal government, which is why what Connecticut is doing is so innovative, and I really appreciate Gov. Lamont’s leadership in this area,” Guzman said.
Connecticut is the 21st state Guzman says she has visited since taking over the SBA in the midst of a pandemic that elevated the profile of the agency by making it central to the distribution of billions in relief.
Lamont was an early supporter of Biden’s campaign and has been a promoter of the president’s pandemic relief and infrastructure spending.
“He’s really focused on trying to prioritize and align with so much of what is core to President Biden’s vision around rebuilding America, investing in America and making sure that we can build back better,” Guzman said.
U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, who is seeking reelection, made clear she was eager for voters see what the infrastructure bill can produce in terms of vital public-works projects and, eventually, jobs.
“I couldn’t have been more thrilled that we are here showcasing a wastewater treatment system in my district, because this really is the highlight of the work that we’ve been doing,” Hayes said. “And I look forward to the jobs.”
Boughton’s new title underscores Lamont’s approach
Boughton is the latest commissioner given a status of senior advisor to Lamont with some oversight, or at least coordination responsibilities, that crosses state agency lines. Over three years, Lamont has developed an ad hoc management structure that blurs some organizational lines — breaking down silos, in his view.
Josh Geballe is the chief operating officer, as well as commissioner of administrative services. Dr. Deidre Gifford, the commissioner of social services, is a senior advisor on health and human services. David Lehman, the commissioner of economic development, is a senior economic advisor.
The senior advisors took over most aspects of the state’s response to COVID-19. Gifford was the acting commissioner of public health, and Lehman took the lead in coordinating the conditions under which restaurants and other venues were allowed to reopen.
Boughton said his task is to coordinate, not direct. He is establishing a dashboard tracking projects initiated by the state and some cases, municipalities.
“I want to make sure that everybody’s coordinating, we’re not siloed off,” Boughton said. “We want to make sure that in terms of priorities, we’re making short-term impact, medium-range impact, and obviously, long term. There’s a lot here. I mean, the governor has handed me $12.6 billion and said, ‘Get this spent in the next six years.”
Lamont said he likes the pragmatism of Boughton, specifically, and mayors generally.
Boughton was the mayor of Danbury for 20 years before Lamont hired him a year ago. In 2018, Boughton had hopes of winning Lamont’s job. He won the endorsement of the GOP convention for governor, but was a runner up in the primary to Bob Stefanowski, who lost to Lamont.
“I like mayors. That’s where the rubber meets the road,” Lamont said. “So I think he’s pretty well suited for this. And he’s gotten to know all of our commissioners over the last year. That’s kind of helpful. You can’t step on people’s toes. You’re working with people. You’re trying to coordinate. I think he’ll be really good at it.”