Hartford skyline, traffic during morning rush hour on I-91 Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org
Michael Rosario, the business manager for a plumbers & pipe fitters local, praised Lamont on his handling of the pandemic, then challenged him over a licensing issue. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Even before final passage in the U.S. House, the massive federal infrastructure spending package is yielding political benefits for Gov. Ned Lamont, a first-term governor well into an undeclared campaign for re-election in 2022.

The bill would send at least $5.38 billion to Connecticut over the next five years, allowing the Lamont administration to move forward on promised transportation spending stymied by the General Assembly.

“If that becomes law, that’s going to be the single largest increase in transportation in our nation’s history since Eisenhower, since the start of the interstate highway system,” said Garrett Eucalitto, the deputy commissioner of transportation.

The political impact was evident last week at a meeting of the Connecticut State Building Trades Council addressed by Eucalitto, Commissioner Katie Dykes of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and Lamont.

A potential flash point — the administration’s opposition to construction of a gas-fired power plant in Killingly long favored by the trades as a source of good jobs — was mentioned only in passing.

Instead, the governor was sent home with a standing ovation and a significant promise from Keith Brothers, a Laborers union leader elected last week as president of the statewide building trades council.

“You’ll always have our support,” Brothers said.

An issue that once threatened Lamont’s hopes for a second term, infrastructure spending now is an asset for the governor, largely due to factors beyond his control.

The roll out of his proposal for highway tolls was a disaster that kept Lamont on the defensive throughout 2019 and into the first weeks of 2020, when the governor finally declared the effort dead. 

He ended his first year with approval ratings among the lowest of any governor.

Lamont’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic was approved in polls by about 70% of voters, lifting his overall approval to 56% in the most recent survey, according to a Sacred Heart University poll in May.

On the infrastructure issue, his failure to win passage of highway tolls has been offset by the passage of a mileage fee on heavy trucks, an increase in fuel-tax revenue due to higher prices, and the promise of unprecedented federal largesse.

The federal bill passed by the evenly divided Senate and awaiting final action in the Democratic-controlled House would increase by more than one-third the money due to Connecticut through various spending formulas.

The $5.38 billion it would generate for the state over five years would be a $1.62 billion increase over the previous five, said Eucalitto, the deputy DOT commissioner. Other competitive grants also would be on the table.

In remarks to the building trades, who met last week at Mohegan Sun to elect new officers, Lamont acknowledged that finding state funding for infrastructure has been a problem but one mitigated by the election of Joe Biden as president.

“I have to convince legislators every day, these are the most important investments we can make,” Lamont said. “We’re making these investments, we’re going to be making these investments for the foreseeable future. And I’ve got a partner down in Washington, D.C.”

Lamont was one of Biden’s earliest supporters, writing a check to his campaign on April 25, 2019, the day Biden formally became a candidate. 

“I’ll be blunt, I don’t like to do politics all the time. But I was a Joe Biden guy because Joe Biden knew the importance of infrastructure,” Lamont told the trades. “And he’s putting his money where his mouth is —  this is the biggest infrastructure bill in the history of this country.”

The governor’s struggles over tolls in 2019 coincided with a low period for the building trades, whose leadership resented the failure of the legislature’s Democratic majority to rally around the governor’s plan.

The trades also had complained that the rest of the labor movement in Connecticut was insufficiently supportive, prompting a discussion about withdrawing from the AFL-CIO, the federation that often speaks for labor in Hartford. 

In a vote by their executive council, the trades recently affirmed their intention to remain. One reason was passage of Senate Bill 999, a measure that labor says will ensure that union labor gets a significant share of clean-energy projects. 

Some of the leaders, while acknowledging that their rank and file are more conservative than other unions, say they are trying to find more common ground with a labor movement largely yoked to the Democratic Party.

Joseph P. Toner, the executive director of the trades council, said his members have not given up on the Killingly plant, which he says can be justified as part of a transition to a greener economy.

Toner said he found the opposition to the plant jarring, given that Lamont’s predecessor, Dannel P. Malloy, had promoted natural gas as a cheaper and cleaner alternative to oil and coal. 

Connecticut’s last coal-fired plant, a 400-megawatt unit at PSEG Power’s Bridgeport Harbor Station, was retired in June. Two years ago, PSEG opened a larger gas-fired generator at Bridgeport Station.

But Lamont has set a goal of carbon-free electricity by 2040.

Toner listened politely to Lamont’s environmental and energy commissioner, Katie Dykes, make a pitch about the transportation climate initiative and how labor will benefit from the transition away from fossil fuels, including electric vehicles.

“That’s going to mean a lot of infrastructure work to build out those charging stations across the state,” Dykes said.

Toner told her that the building trades were in talks with two developers of proposed anaerobic digester projects, a technology that uses microorganisms to break down food and other organic waste.

“Any help on the anaerobic digesters would be much appreciated,” Toner told Dykes. “That’s going to actually fill the void for us on the electric side, on the electric generation side, where we’re losing those jobs.”

Overall, Toner said, the renewables offer fewer man-hours for the trades, but the unions are trying to stay nimble.

“We’re trying to find our way,” Toner said later, after Dykes, Eucalitto and Lamont had left. “There is a transition. We accept that.”

Several trade-union leaders complimented Lamont for his handling of the pandemic, thanking him for stressing safe health practices, such as masking and social distancing, over shutting down construction projects.

“You did a phenomenal job, and I really mean that,” said Michael Rosario, the business manager of Local 777, a plumbers and pipefitters union based in Meriden.

But he pivoted to a complaint about the trades originally being included in a licensing reciprocity bill favored by the administration. It lessens the red tape for someone in a licensed profession going to work in Connecticut, something Lamont favors.

Rosario said that is fine for a lot of professions, but not in building trades where safety is paramount and codes can vary. He acknowledged a desire to protect unionized labor from being undercut. 

“I know there’s some people talking that there’s a shortage of workers. And we got to make it easier for plumbers and electricians to come in Connecticut,” Rosario said. “And that is partially true — there is a shortage for people that make substandard wages and don’t have health care and don’t have pensions.”

The reciprocity bill passed, but only after the trades were exempted. Lamont promised he would consult with Brothers, the new council president, when the issue inevitably arises again.

“I’m going to work right here with Keith to make sure whatever we do, we do it right, we do it in collaboration, we do it together,” Lamont said. “I don’t want fly-by-night, out-of-state people to come in taking Connecticut jobs from Connecticut people.”

But Lamont also offered a gentle push back, saying he must be assured of a sufficient work force.

“So when the money starts coming in, the projects start in a year or two, we’re ready to hit the ground.”

Correction: The $5.38 billion would represent an increase of $1.62 billion over the previous five years. As originally posted, the story said the state has received $1.62 billion over the past five years.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.