Lamont’s goal is growth. The policies? A work in progress
With a focus on economic growth and continued fiscal stability, Gov. Ned Lamont has broadly defined the goals of his second term while offering little hint as to how they might be achieved.
His reelection victory is a month behind him, the start of his second term a month ahead. In an interview this week, Lamont was not ready to offer policy initiatives, while asserting a mandate for fiscal discipline in service to economic growth.
“For me, it’s all about growth, because I think growth is a handmaiden of opportunity,” Lamont said. “And the opposite of that is no growth — it’s Hunger Games, everybody fighting over that last scrap of meat.”
Sustained growth has been elusive. The state had not recovered all the jobs lost in the 2008-2010 recession when the COVID lockdown began in March 2020, costing another 289,400 jobs. About 90% of the lockdown losses have been regained.
But blessed with a rare string of budget surpluses, Lamont was able to put $3.3 billion in budget reserves and use another $5.4 billion to accelerate the retirement of pension debt over three years.
“I can tell you as a small business guy, fiscal stability is key,” said Lamont, the founder and former owner of a small cable television company. “Nobody ever had any idea for the last 20 years what the state was going to look like in two years from a fiscal point of view.”
It’s the record he ran on, winning by 12 percentage points. Lamont, a Democrat, won in the struggling cities that are Democratic strongholds, as well as the wealthy suburbs of Fairfield County.
“I think the voters spoke pretty loud and clear: ‘I liked the direction we’re on right now,’” Lamont said. “In any predictable set of economic circumstances, we’re at a good place. People recognize that. Rating agencies recognize that. Businesses call me, they recognize that.”
Lamont said he wants to keep the financial guardrails established in a bipartisan budget passed in 2017, a year before he won his first term and Democrats reestablished strong majorities in the General Assembly. They include a volatility cap that limits spending of income tax receipts tied to capital gains and other investment earnings.
Lawmakers and business leaders say they are eager to hear more, though they recognize the governor is revamping his administration.
“Maybe that’s some of the, I’ll say, delay behind some of the details,” said Chris DiPentima, president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. “You’ve got a new team coming on board.”
Lamont is set to announce two new appointments Wednesday, one to lead a major agency. He also has reorganized his own staff. On Jan. 4, he will have new people in key jobs: Jonathan Dach, chief of staff; Natalie Braswell, general counsel; and Adam Joseph, communications director.
Dach, currently the administration’s policy director and deputy chief of staff, said policy details and accompanying legislation will go to the legislature in February, when the administration delivers its budget proposal.
“The governor has a constitutional obligation to present a balanced budget in the opening weeks of February, and you’ll see the details that expand upon the themes he expounded on the campaign,” Dach said.
DiPentima said the governor seems to be generally aligned with the goals outlined in the trade group’s “Transform Connecticut Policy Pledge.”
Among other things, its priorities are building worker housing, lowering employer health costs, easing the transferability of out-of-state occupational licenses, providing small businesses with better access to research and development credits, and promoting early and mid-stage investments in life sciences and medical-device sectors.
“I would love to see either the governor sign the pledge or endorse part of the pledge,” DiPentima said. “Or if they don’t, certainly come up with their own set of priorities, so we get the discussion going.
“But we’re right behind the governor with priority one, which is certainly getting the fiscal reforms extended. No doubt about that. We stand shoulder to shoulder with him on that one.”
The pledge was signed by the winners of 10 Senate and 71 House races, including House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, and House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford.
Candelora said he hopes to hear some policy details from Lamont before February.
“I think the early bird gets the worm, and I think it’s important for the governor to set the tone as early as possible,” Candelora said. “And so I would hope we would have more definitive policies sooner than later.”
Candelora said lawmakers will be filing their own legislation well before February.
Sen. Jorge Cabrera, D-Hamden, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers who signed the CBIA pledge, said he expects to get a better sense of Lamont’s approach in January, when he addresses the legislature.
“I’m giving him the benefit of doubt for now,” Cabrera said.
Cabrera said the common ground he has with CBIA and the administration turn on a shared desire to grow the workforce, which will require investments in more focused job training, affordable housing and increased child care.
Rojas said that will mean more spending.
“I think if we’re going to be honest talking about affordability and moving Connecticut forward, I think we have to have a serious conversation about housing and housing policy and allowing our housing inventory to grow in a way to meet demand, not only to meet demand for new housing but also to replace a lot of older housing,” Rojas said.
Lamont said the state must act quickly to meet the need for housing and workforce development.
“I’ve always believed you make hay while the sun shines. This does not go on forever. So take advantage of this right now,” he said.
Lamont said he is not averse to investing in housing, day care and workforce development. His message is lawmakers on spending is simple:
“I want everything you do to be looked at through the lens of growth and opportunity. I want every investment we make — how will that help the state grow?”