Gubernatorial contenders spar on jobs, roads, taxes

Let it not be said that Connecticut Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on anything.

It took about five minutes for the three Republicans and two Democrats running for governor to agree during Tuesday’s debate that Connecticut is a poor place in which to do business.

And about the only thing harder than trying to grow a business in the state, they further agreed, was trying to drive in it.

What the five major party candidates who squared off at the Stamford Plaza Hotel couldn’t find consensus on was the role tax increases should play in resolving the largest budget deficit in state history.

Tom Foley and Michael Fedele insisted they can close the $3.4 billion gap built into 2011-12 — a shortfall equal to nearly 20 percent of the current budget — without any tax hikes. Dan Malloy disagreed. Oz Griebel wouldn’t rule them out.

gubernatorial debate2 6-30-10

Gubernatorial candidates (from left) Tom Foley, Dan Malloy, Michael Fedele, Ned Lamont and Oz Griebel (Nicolas Kemper)

And then there was Ned Lamont, who focused more on his pledge to remain independent of party politics — despite his Democratic affiliation — than on declaring his position on tax issues.

“It’s an anti-private sector, anti-business, anti-jobs attitude in this state,” said Griebel, who is on leave from his post as president of the Greater Hartford Metro Alliance. He said state government spending and taxes, combined with inadequate investment in transportation, job training and higher education, has left Connecticut unprepared to compete with other states for business.

Engaged in a three-way primary battle with Foley and Fedele for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, Griebel added that Connecticut has to be prepared to upgrade its transportation system now, and without much help from a federal government plagued with its own budget problems. “If Connecticut is serious,” he said, “we are going to have to bear more of the cost.”

“Investing in transportation infrastructure is critical toward keeping the private sector fully engaged and getting people back to work,” he said.

“I talk on the road about Connecticut having spent too much and invested too little,” said Foley, a Greenwich businessman who has never held elected office. He said state government has “repeatedly raided” fuel tax revenues to prop-up non-transportation programs. “One of the reasons this has been permitted is we have not been working toward a long-term economic plan. Without it, it’s hard to make choices,” he said.

One of two home-towners at Tuesday’s debate, Malloy, who was mayor of Stamford for 14 years, said Connecticut has to assess its state and local tax policies against those in neighboring states, particularly New York, if it hopes to win back some of the jobs and businesses it has lost over the past two decades.

“We need to make sure we’re not shooting ourselves in our own toes in terms of job production,” said Malloy, who also has said the wealthy and larger corporations should bear a greater share of any new tax burdens as opposed to middle-income families and small businesses. Malloy and Lamont face off in the Aug. 10 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Connecticut also must end its practice of borrowing to close general fund deficits, Malloy said, adding it is using up too much of the state’s credit and leaving too little borrowing capacity for financing that helps the economy.

“One of the problems is that we go to Wall Street to borrow money for operating expenses,” the former mayor said, adding that research shows 22,000 new construction jobs can be created for every $1 billion spent on transportation and other capital projects.

Fedele, a former state representative from Stamford who has been lieutenant governor under retiring Gov. M. Jodi Rell since 2006, placed the blame for state government’s fiscal woes on the Democrat-controlled legislature.

Though all of the candidates insisted tax hikes should be kept to a minimum, Fedele disagreed with Malloy’s assertion that they have to be part of the solution.

“Let us not stand here and tell you that these challenges are going to be fixed overnight,” he said, adding that unless the next governor forces the legislature to dramatically cut spending before taxes are debated, real change will not occur. “The more (revenue) we give them, the more they spend,” he said. “There are the right opportunities to do things before we look at taxes.”

Lamont, a cable television executive from Greenwich, said his administration’s economic development policies would focus on small- and mid-sized businesses, adding that if each business in Connecticut added one or two new employees, “It would dramatically change the economy.” And though he didn’t offer many thoughts about tax hikes, he did say that “I don’t want to do anything in this budget that hurts job creation.”

The Democratic frontrunner according to a late May poll from Quinnipiac University, Lamont continued a theme he launched in a television ad this past weekend, comparing himself to Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Connecticut’s former third-party governor who led the state through a recession in the early 1990s.

Lamont said he is “not afraid to shake things up, not afraid to take on the Democrats and the Republicans.” And though he talked about the need to “fundamentally reform” how state health care programs are purchased and delivered, he didn’t address the single-largest factor that impacts costs — the level of health benefits provided to public employees and to low- and middle-income families.

Foley was quick to point out that Weicker pledged in the 1990 gubernatorial campaign not to seek a state income tax in his first term, and then proposed one two months after taking office — and signed it into law in August 1991.

“I can promise you in a Foley administration, what you hear from me now, you will get,” he said. “We can solve this budget deficit without any new taxes.”