Gov. Ned Lamont has had two very different years in office. During the first, he had to contend with the Connecticut General Assembly, but not COVID-19. During the second, he faced COVID, but not lawmakers.
Any guess which he found easier?
“Obviously, this last year has been very different. I mean, the legislature went home. That was amazing. We got a lot done,” Lamont said recently. Then laughing, he added, “You know, I kind of liked it.”
A joke, perhaps.
In any case, the legislature is back, COVID persists, and the Democratic governor and lawmakers, the majority of whom are Democrats, are about to discover what it’s like to pursue agendas that overlap but are hardly in sync.
Lamont still is managing COVID under emergency public health powers. But advancing a broader agenda means finding common cause with the General Assembly.
On Feb. 10, the governor will propose a two-year budget accompanied by a legislative package he says will include measures to legalize recreational marijuana and sports betting. Highway tolls are off the table, but he also is expected to propose a new funding source to provide revenue for a faltering special transportation fund.
Lawmakers are eager to see how he frames his proposals.
In the third year of their relationship, the governor and legislature still struggle at times to figure out what the other is about. Lamont, 67, a Greenwich businessman, arrived in Hartford as a cultural and geographic outsider, less a practitioner of politics than an earnest student.
His initial posture towards legislators was an invitation to join him in crafting approaches to a broad range of issues. He promised an office with “an open door” and “a big table.” The overture was initially welcoming, but ultimately frustrating to lawmakers.
“He’s a great person to talk to. He’s very, very approachable,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. “But the problem that I can’t get through to him, and I broached this subject, is how you engage the legislature and take an active role in that process.”
Simply put, legislators have had trouble divining what was truly important to Lamont, a necessary foundation on which legislation is assembled and deals are made. If Lamont aims to score legislative victories this year, lawmakers say the governor must speak with clarity and conviction.
“I think that it would be nice to have clear parameters around the bills that are important to the governor — and that he would understand the clear parameters that are around the bills that are important to the legislature,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee.
“I think we’re still learning to work together,” said Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, the other Appropriations co-chair.
Lamont is aware of the criticism.
“I think that first year I was, you know, ‘I’m gonna keep my options open. Let’s listen, let’s see where the legislature is on this.’ I think in this legislative session, I think it’s handy for people to know exactly where I stand,” Lamont said. “I want them to know where I stand on taxes. I think that helps the conversation.”
Lamont has signaled clearly to Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, and legislative progressives that he sees no need for new taxes. Looney is proposing a statewide property tax that would apply to properties with a market value of at least $430,000 and a 1% tax on the capital gains on single filers making more than $500,000 or couples earning more than $1 million.
House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said there is nothing wrong with a governor drawing lines, or even making judicious references to the possibility of a veto.
“When you do say it, you have to mean it,” Ritter said. “That’s very, very important for negotiations, just because I need to know, and tell my caucus, what are the red lines we cannot cross. But at the same time, if you throw that word around too much, it also loses its luster a little bit.”
If Ritter is prescribing some tough love, he also insists the governor would benefit from a better understanding of the importance to legislators of bonding for local projects. Lamont has been averse to borrowing, often deriding it as pork.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m not going to entertain projects that don’t add value to our state.’ OK, that’s one thing, but it’s another thing to say, ‘I’m not gonna entertain projects.’ And they were sort of on the latter for a while,” Ritter said. “I think they’re going to have to recalibrate that thought process, because legislators are going to demand it.”
House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said the governor clearly struggled making the transition from businessman to elected official.
“Given his personality, given his temperament, I think he’s really, really recovered from that and recovered in a real difficult situation where communication, at least from my end, is improved greatly,” Rojas said.
Looney said he believes Lamont has learned that wrangling votes in the 151-seat House or 36-seat Senate can require patience.
“I think he has learned that the legislature has to go through a process and can’t turn on a dime like the executive can, in terms of one person being able to make a decision for the entire branch of government,” Looney said. “So I think he’s learned a little bit about the nuts and bolts, of the fact that the legislature is more like the battleship, whereas the executive is more like a nifty sailboat that can pivot quickly.”
Looney may be overly optimistic.
In an interview last week, Lamont referred to the Capitol as “a mud pit,” where policies stall and sink in the mire of politics.
“I love the job. And I think we’re making a difference. And I think we’re going in the right direction,” Lamont said. “But fundamentally, I just, — you know, the Capitol is just all politics and short-term political calculations.”
This will be a pivotal session for Lamont should he seek a second term in 2022, which many Democrats say is the party’s default assumption until the governor says otherwise. Lamont said he intends to avoid the question of re-election as long as possible.
“I’m staying as far away from that stuff as I can, A, because everybody’s running, all the time, non-stop in the Capitol building,” he said. “That’s why so little gets done. And, B, I’ve got a lot of work to do. And I just don’t need to put any partisan hue into this thing. I’d like to think that we dealt with COVID in a way that both Republicans and Democrats understand that we’re trying to do the best thing for their public health. And I don’t want to do anything to compromise that.”
His legislative record is relatively thin, a consequence of a first year dominated by a failed campaign for highway tolls and a second year interrupted by COVID-19.
His standing in the polls was solid last year, a reflection of what the public generally has seen as a competent and empathetic performance in the management of a pandemic that hit Connecticut especially hard in its early months.
“My priority for this coming biennium is a little bit like where I was last time — I’ve got to maintain the fiscal stability of this state,” Lamont said. “When I came in, it was, ‘What the hell’s the matter with Connecticut?’ You remember that headline? And they’re not asking that question now.”
Winning passage of a budget on time and without drama is what he points to as a key first-year accomplishment. He also played a supporting role in the passage of a paid family and medical leave program and a law raising the minimum wage to $15.
Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, the co-chair of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, said urban Democratic lawmakers are hungry for something bolder, an agenda that tackles social justice issues and other needs of struggling cities and communities of color.
“And that takes vision, that takes leadership. I’ve been in the legislature 35 years now,” Fonfara said. “And while the legislature can do a lot of good things, it takes a governor in the end to do bold things that have a chance at passing, becoming law and implemented. And that has not been this governor’s agenda in his first couple of years.”
Fiscal stability is not enough, he said.
“We need to have a leader who’s going to not just keep the trains running on time. That’s not enough, not when your economy is where ours is — no net new jobs in 20 years, a property tax system that inhibits growth,” Fonfara said.
Lamont did support the passage of a police accountability bill in a special session last year.
Lamont tried something bold in 2019. After promising during his campaign he would only consider truck tolls as means to finance overdue transportation improvements, he proposed an electronic tolling system on cars as well as trucks.
The 2019 session ended without a vote on his plan. Lamont tried to revive it in a special session that fall, finally articulating what the new revenue could buy: selective highway widening and exit improvements that could shorten commutes and spark development.
When that failed, he tried to fall back to a trucks-only plan, encouraged by House Democrats. Lamont lost patience in February 2020, concluding that even a downsized plan would not come to a vote in the Senate.
Lamont sees the effort today as a noble failure.
“My political guys said, ‘Don’t touch the transportation fund. That is just a political loser.’ And I said. ‘I’m 66 years old. I’m not here to not take on issues like this.’ Did it work? No,” Lamont said. “In fact, I couldn’t get the legislature to vote on anything — my bill, their bill, any bill.”
To at least temporarily stabilize transportation funding, Lamont said, he is exploring a type of mileage fee on trucks, an idea congressional Republicans have floated in Washington.
“We’re going to think about this mileage thing for trucks,” Lamont said. “And I’m going to put some critical things on the table for the legislature. And probably they’ll say, ‘Nah, not right now.’ But my job is to try and let the political chips fall where they may.”
Sports betting is likely to pass, if he can come to terms with the two federally recognized tribes, which have exclusive rights to casino gambling. The tribes assert bookmaking is a casino game.
Winning a majority in favor of the concept of legalizing marijuana is uncertain. The details are complex, including questions about who would be eligible for licenses to sell and what communities should benefit from the new revenue.
Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, co-chair of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, said finding a consensus on those issues most likely won’t happen without a clear position from the Lamont administration.
“I think that’s the right approach,” he said.
Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, part of a group that has been working with the administration on what he called “equity issues” pertaining to legalization, said the details are important.
“We’ve come up with a number of recommendations as pertains to licensing and where the revenue should go,” Elliott said. “So the issue is, will he actually do those things? Or is it just to say, ‘Hey, look, I’m listening,’ and then promptly ignore us?”