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Running for reelection, Gov. Ned Lamont says Connecticut is bouncing back after COVID

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Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont talks with Lucy Nalpathanchil on "Where We Live" Sept. 8, 2022.

For Gov. Ned Lamont, the past two and a half years have been ruled by one issue: COVID-19.

Hundreds of Connecticut residents are still hospitalized with the virus, but the pandemic has largely receded into the background of everyday life. Gone are daily media briefings and multi-hour waits at drive-thru testing centers.

Instead, Connecticut is learning to live with COVID-19. Speaking Thursday on Connecticut Public Radio’s Where We Live, Lamont said that “we now have the ability to keep ourselves safe” and that on the first day of school this year, “everybody felt like we were back to normal.”

It’s Lamont’s second time running against Republican Bob Stefanowski. In 2018, Lamont defeated Stefanowski by 3.2 percentage points or about 40,000 votes. On Tuesday, Stefanowski appeared on Where We Live.

Here are some highlights from Connecticut Public’s interview with Lamont.

On the COVID-19 pandemic: ‘I don’t see any need for mandates’

Connecticut has seen COVID numbers rise and fall throughout the pandemic.

Since mid-July, daily hospitalization numbers have hovered around 300 people. While that’s a far cry from peaks of nearly 2,000 people, the numbers still show COVID isn’t going anywhere.

Now, with omicron boosters becoming available before an anticipated fall and winter surge, Lamont said his administration is optimistic that life is returning to normal. But “that said, we’re careful. Fall is flu season. This is not our first rodeo. We’ve been through two other falls where we did see a flare-up. So we have stocked up as necessary on vaccines, masks and tests.”

Last winter, Connecticut dropped its statewide mask mandate in schools. Lamont said the requirements were no longer needed as hospitalization numbers dropped and vaccines were widely available. Since then, he has said a statewide mask mandate won’t be returning.

“Unlike two years ago, we now have the ability to keep ourselves safe. We have vaccines … we have rapid, same-day tests,” Lamont said Thursday. “I don’t see any need for mandates.”

On tax relief and Connecticut’s economy: ‘I’ve tried to strike the right balance’

Earlier this year, Democrats and Lamont ordered more than $660 million in tax relief, which is one of the largest tax relief plans in state history. But about half the relief is one-time in nature.

The state also reported a massive $4.3 billion budget surplus. Stefanowski said it should be allocated “back to taxpayers.”

“I don’t know why [Lamont] won’t give some of it back to us. He should, particularly when people can’t afford to buy gas and food,” Stefanowski said.

Lamont’s administration has offered pandemic bonuses to essential workers in recent weeks, but as the Connecticut Mirror reported, demand has vastly outstripped supply.

The governor said he has tried to “lead by example,” giving all state workers bonuses and some, like correction officers and police, additional hazard pay for working during COVID.

But Lamont said you “can have a debate” about whether more pandemic bonuses should be allocated to private-sector workers.

“How about those workers at Electric Boat who showed up every day? And then the question is, ‘Well, is that the obligation of the state to pay them a bonus for the hard work they did? Or is that an obligation of Electric Boat?” Lamont said.

The governor said his administration directed relief toward essential workers at places like day care facilities, which might not be able to pay workers bonuses.

“We’re taking care of everybody who works for state government or [is] even related to state government,” Lamont said. “I’d like to think that our major manufacturers … they step up and do the right thing as well.”

Lamont said he has used the budget surplus to chip away at the state’s nearly $40 billion pool of pension debt, which Democrats believe will reduce future pension contributions and free up more money for programs or tax relief.

“You can say, ‘I think the taxpayers ought to pay for this. I think we should pay down less of the state pension and pay out more money now,’” Lamont said. “That’s always a debate we’ve had. I’ve tried to strike the right balance.”

On rising health care costs: ‘Most people’ won’t see major increases’ 

Lamont was criticized this week by Republicans for failing to contain health care costs in Connecticut.

Most residents get private health insurance through their public, private or nonprofit employer. But about 200,000 residents get insurance on their own or through a small group policy, and for those individuals, rates are – on paper at least – rising by an average of 13%.

Lamont said federal subsidies should blunt the immediate impact of that cost increase for some residents.

“Almost all of those people will not see much of an increase at all,” he said.

Still, state Attorney General William Tong criticized the Insurance Department, saying it acted too quickly to allow sufficient scrutiny of the proposed rate increases.

Lamont said the bigger issue in the insurance sector is that health care is just too expensive.

“To deal with rising costs – deal with the rising costs. The rising costs of health care are related to hospitalization and pharmaceutical[s],” Lamont said. “That’s what my real focus is.”

On affordable housing: ‘It’s very important that each town take the initiative’

Connecticut’s zoning law, known as Section 8-30g, works to reverse decades of housing discrimination. It says 10% of a town’s housing stock should be affordable. If that’s not the case, developers may propose plans that may circumvent local zoning regulations.

The law set off debate across Connecticut, with some residents fearing that large residential developments may alter the “character” of communities, according to The New York Times.

Lamont said local towns should take the lead on this issue and focus on developing downtowns. “I wouldn’t be breaking zoning and having a lot of suburban sprawl,” he said.

But he acknowledged that Connecticut is “desperately short of housing across the board,” saying, “I think it’s very important that each town take the initiative” to reach 10% affordable housing.

But critics say not all towns are. Woodbridge faces a civil lawsuit, with housing advocates arguing the town is deepening racial divides by not creating enough affordable housing.

Lamont said he doesn’t think litigation is the path to getting more affordable housing built.

“Woodbridge, tell us where you would like to have some housing that your teachers, and firefighters and cops … can live,” Lamont said. “If you show us this is a place where we’ll allow our downtown to grow and expand a little bit – then you don’t have to sit around subdividing one-acre lots. I don’t think that’s the future.”

Stefanowski said residents shouldn’t have to move out of cities to get access to affordable housing. But where affordable units go, he said, should be a matter for local leaders to decide.

On education and the classroom: ‘I don’t like people badmouthing our teachers.’

As students return to school, some districts are facing teacher shortages.

“We do need more teachers,” Lamont said, noting the state has worked to nurture more apprentice teachers who can earn money while learning the profession in the classroom.

Meanwhile, statewide school mask mandates have been gone since February, but Stefanowski said government is “getting in the way” of parents and their children.

Earlier this week, Stefanowski’s campaign released a “parental bill of rights,” which called for reevaluating how sex education is taught to young children. He said parents should have more control over decisions like vaccines and masking in schools, but he did not go into specifics.

“Respect our teachers,” Lamont said. “I don’t like people badmouthing our teachers or pitting teachers against parents – they’ve got to work together closely.”

Stefanowski said his positions on education are “not about arguing with teachers.”

“It’s working with teachers,” Stefanowski said. “It’s about working collaboratively with parents to teach reading, writing and arithmetic. And that’s what our schools need to get back to.”

Lamont said: “I want parental involvement 100%. Teaching only works if we work together.”

But he said teachers know best what belongs in the classroom.

“Are you overemphasizing the Holocaust? Are you overemphasizing slavery when you teach that as part of your history program? I think it’s called history. And I think our teachers have the right judgment – what’s age-appropriate – and, I don’t think our kids are snowflakes. I think they can learn from history just like all of us can.”

On crime in Connecticut: ‘Coming out of COVID, there was a lot of extreme behavior’

On Tuesday, Stefanowski cited low numbers of state troopers and said Lamont “doesn’t want to talk about crime” in Connecticut.

Lamont acknowledged the low numbers and said his administration is working to recruit more state troopers and diversify the ranks of people who become state troopers.

“Just as importantly, I’m working really hard at the municipal level, giving them additional resources,” Lamont said, noting difficulties cities can have in retaining police officers. “There we’ve got to do a better job of recruiting.”

Stefanowski has also claimed residents in Connecticut were safer four years ago than they are today.

Lamont disagreed with that, but said “coming out of COVID, there was a lot of extreme behavior. We had more car accidents, we had more addiction, we had more suicides, and there were shootings.”

“But let’s remember the fundamental fact – Connecticut is one of the safest states in the country,” Lamont said. “Don’t badmouth the incredible work our police do and our communities do.”

In 2021, FBI statistics showed Connecticut had the fourth-lowest violent crime rate in the nation, but it had a property crime rate that was higher than 14 states, according to the Hartford Courant.

Across America, violent crime today is down when compared to federal data from the 1980s and 1990s. But recent years brought spikes in homicides and gun violence to some communities.

On allegations of ‘corruption’ in Connecticut

Stefanowski has repeatedly criticized the Lamont administration, saying it’s subjecting Connecticut residents to a so-called “corruption tax.”

Underlying that, Stefanowski claims, is the redevelopment of State Pier in New London, which is over budget and the focus of a federal investigation.

Lamont said the State Pier will serve as a hub for the offshore wind industry. He said “it’s the most important investment” made in southeast Connecticut in 50 years. But he said inflation and work reorienting the pier to accommodate ferries added tens of millions of dollars to costs.

“Inflation was tough over the last couple of years, particularly tough in the construction trades,” Lamont said. “But I want to give people confidence. It’s money well invested and it’s going to make a big difference for this state.”

Lamont said that many of the management issues at State Pier predate his administration and that he worked to appoint new leaders at the quasi-public agency.

As the CT Mirror has reported, federal law enforcement is also investigating school construction grants that were spearheaded by Konstantinos “Kosta” Diamantis. The Lamont administration eventually fired Diamantis from his budget post.

“We acted,” Lamont said. “I worry a lot less about corruption than I do about stupid things we do as a state over the last 30 years. That’s where the real cost is.”

Watch the full interview with Governor Ned Lamont

This story contains information from the Associated Press.

Lucy is the Executive Producer and Host of Connecticut Public's morning talk show, 'Where We Live.' She’s a longtime public radio reporter covering several beats including immigration, juvenile justice and child welfare issues, education, veterans affairs and the military.
Tess is a senior producer for the Connecticut Public news-talk show 'Where We Live.' She enjoys writing micro poetry and growing herbs.
Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.