Lamont, Griebel find the deficit less daunting after the campaign

NEW BRITAIN — Former gubernatorial candidates Ned Lamont and Oz Griebel found it much easier Monday to tackle the state’s budget crisis, now that their respective bids for state government’s highest office is over.

lamont and griebel, 10-25-10

Ned Lamont, left, and Oz Griebel on the deficit: Easy to talk about now (Keith M. Phaneuf)

Lamont, who was reluctant to talk about any state employee wage or benefit concessions before his August loss to Dan Malloy in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, said Connecticut’s next governor needs to use both “carrot and stick” to get $500 million worth of annual savings from labor.

Griebel, who finished third in the GOP primary behind the winner, Tom Foley, and Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele, wouldn’t go much beyond saying tax hikes coldn’t be ruled out during his campaign.

But in Monday’s panel discussion, led by WNPR news director and talk show host John Dankosky, he conceded that tax hikes, including an income tax increase, likely need to be considered — provided they are linked to major spending reforms.

An income tax hike? “I’m not against that,” Griebel told a group of about 50 students gathered at the Vance Academic Building, adding, “But there has to be some real structural reform. … We’re not just raising taxes to help the status quo.”

Lamont, whose favorite response when pressed about tax hikes during his campaign was, “we haven’t earned the right to talk about increasing taxes,” exercised that right Monday.

Lamont agreed with Griebel that some degree of tax increases would be needed to close the $3.26 billion deficit projected for next fiscal year, a gap equal to 17 percent of the current budget.

“The income tax is going to be at the table,” he said, adding not only the wealthy, but middle-income households likely would be affected. “I think if you want to get real recurring revenues, those are the type of items that have be considered.”

And the Greenwich cable television executive predicted that a reasonable level of tax hikes also would be acceptable to businesses. The biggest impediment to job growth created by state government in recent years, he added, has been the air of fiscal uncertainty caused by using one-time revenues to support billions of dollars in ongoing spending.

“I think all of these stop-gaps, these Band-Aids, … all we do is hit the pause button” on job growth, Lamont said.

Lamont, who fought with Malloy for the public-sector union backing crucial in a statewide Democratic primary, said Monday that “I think our state pension plan, right now, is bankrupt,” and “what we should do is sit down and negotiate like heck, carrot and stick.”

Working together, the next governor and unions should be able to trim annual benefit costs to state government by $500 million, Lamont said, adding “that’s definitely something I would put on the table.”

Both Griebel and Lamont spoke out against nebulous candidate pledges to reduce spending across-the-board by some fixed percentage, arguing it merely dodges the tough question of where to reduce state spending.

“A good CEO never calls for across the board cuts,” Lamont said, adding there always are departments that can absorb cuts, and others that cannot.

Griebel offered a new idea Monday, calling for some degree of shared administration for the state’s three higher education institutions: the University of Connecticut and its branch campuses, the four state universities, and the community-technical colleges.

“I don’t see how we can continue to operate three distinct higher educational systems,” Griebel said, adding that while politicians may fear voter backlash if consolidations are proposed at the state or local level, the public is worried enough about the economy to have this discussion now.

Both former candidates also offered some advice of a more personal nature to their respective parties’ nominees.

Lamont urged Malloy to stick with the less intense, less combative tone struck after the first debate with Foley.

Griebel said the voters are looking for more specific answers and should receive them. “There’s a lot of rhetoric out there,” he added. “I sometimes wish people got pinned down more.”