Gov. Ned Lamont’s election-year State of the State address Wednesday began by answering a question already posed by a Republican opponent: Is Connecticut better off than before he took office in January 2019?
“Today, the state of the state is better off than it was three years ago, but we still have a long way to go,” Lamont said, addressing a joint session of the General Assembly for the first time since the arrival of COVID-19 in March 2020.
The first-term Democrat, a fiscal centrist who signed progressive minimum wage and family leave laws while selling Connecticut as business friendly, emphasized fiscal health ahead of the pandemic that has come to define his tenure.
“Three years ago, we were standing at the edge of a fiscal cliff, facing a $3.7 billion budget deficit, and today we are deciding what taxes to cut or school programs to grow, thanks to our third consecutive year of budget surpluses,” Lamont said.
Lamont has benefitted from a surge in tax revenue and a succession of historic federal aid packages that have resolved Connecticut’s immediate fiscal problems and produced surpluses while inviting pressure from liberals to address social needs.
His speech addressed some of those needs — he announced an intention to double the $20 million in COVID hazard bonuses for front-line state workers — but his focus was on messaging directed beyond the Democratic base to a broader electorate fatigued by COVID and rattled by inflation.
“This year, my budget cuts taxes for working- and middle-class families. We’re also holding down the costs of health care, child care and college tuition, making Connecticut more affordable for everyone,” he said.
His budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins on July 1 includes $175 million in tax cuts, primarily in property tax credits, and another $160 million that would go to municipalities to pay for a state-mandated cap on local motor vehicle taxes.
Lamont said the mandate will cut car taxes in 100 of Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns.
“We’re also going to eliminate the income tax on pension and 401K income for most households,” Lamont said. “Stay in Connecticut and watch your grandkids grow up in your living room, rather than waving to them from a Zoom room in Delray, Florida.”
As has been his habit since taking office, Lamont reminded Wall Street that his administration is intent on assuring businesses that Connecticut is a stable place to grow, even if costs are high.
He noted that Connecticut has jumped 11 places to a middle-of-the-pack ranking of 24th in the CNBC’s list of best places for business, and the state had the unfamiliar experience of an upgraded bond rating on Lamont’s watch.
“Look, outside observers were accustomed to downgrading our ratings, and even the outgoing budget director said Connecticut was in a chronic fiscal crisis,” Lamont said.
His address came on the same day he proposed revisions to the second year of the biennial budget adopted last June with significant support from the Republican minority in the General Assembly.
His budget book for the next fiscal year is titled, “Connecticut’s Comeback,” and the introduction to the spending plan is labeled “The Connecticut Difference,” the latter woven into the budget address in four places.
“We’ve begun to change the narrative from ‘fiscal crisis’ to ‘fiscal turnaround.’ Unlike Washington, we did it together,” Lamont said, his voice rising. “And that’s the Connecticut difference. We did it together.”
With help from Republicans who had pressured the previous administration to accept a volatility cap, the surge in revenues has filled the rainy day fund to overflowing, with a statutory requirement sending billions to pay down unfunded pension debt for the first time.
“Well, how does that affect you?” Lamont said, looking past his immediate audience to voters.
The payments mean hundreds of millions in savings for years to come, as well as assurances to state retirees, a significant voting bloc, that pension promises will be kept.
Lamont also addressed two potential vulnerabilities in 2022:
- An increase in motor vehicle thefts and a general impression, not always supported by statistics, that Connecticut is more dangerous;
- And the recent revelation that programs supervised by an administration official he fired in October are under FBI investigation.
That revelation came on the same day that an investigation commissioned by Lamont concluded that the chief state’s attorney, Richard Colangelo Jr., was untruthful in his account of how he came to hire the daughter of that same official, Kosta Diamantis. Lamont called for the firing of Colangelo before Colangelo announced his intent to retire.
“I have zero tolerance for any ethical malfeasance,” Lamont said. “We hold ourselves to the highest standards. If you see something, say something, and if you don’t get the response you deserve, give me a call.”
His audience included Bob Stefanowski, his Republican opponent in 2018 and the presumptive GOP nominee in 2022. Stefanowski recently launched his campaign by asking Ronald Reagan’s question from 1980: Are you better off than four years ago?
Stefanowski, who has campaigned informally since his loss, thought little of Lamont’s answer. He made himself available for a succession of TV crews and reporters, ensuring his voice would be a part of the day’s stories.
“I’ve spent a good three years now going across the state, and there are very few people that I talked to that think they’re better off than they were three years ago,” Stefanowski said. “Energy prices are higher than they used to be. Crime is higher than it used to be. The transparency and the disclosure coming out of government is much less than it used to be.”
Lamont was interrupted by applause, with some lines approved only from the Democratic side of the aisle, others from both sides, and one expected applause line — his confirmation that the state mandate on masks in schools would not be renewed — drawing an awkward silence.
House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, was not surprised that the line fell flat.
“In this chamber, you have people who think [the mask mandate] should go on longer, and you have people who want it off tomorrow,” Ritter said. “And so it’s the ultimate compromise, where nobody is happy.”
Indeed, outside the Capitol, a high school senior, Lucas Johnson of Griswold, staged a press event demanding an immediate end to the mask mandate, which is now scheduled to become a local option on Feb. 28.
“We’re calling on every state legislator and anyone in position of authority in the state of Connecticut to end the mask mandate immediately,” Johnson said. “Don’t wait until Feb. 28.”
Ritter said he has the votes to pass a special act Thursday that will maintain 11 executive orders after the current gubernatorial state of emergency declaration expires on Feb. 15. The legislature will enact its own limited emergency to ensure continued eligibility for federal pandemic aid.
COVID was mentioned only 10 times in the governor’s 3,679-word text, though he made a cheerful and indirect reference as he took the podium: He smiled and said, “In the flesh!”
The governor, whose management of the pandemic lifted his approval rating from bottom rank of governors in 2019 to the upper reaches in 2020, signaled he was ready to move on.
“Just as I wouldn’t let the state be defined by a chronic fiscal crisis, I will not allow it to be defined by a COVID crisis,” he said. “Despite the intense headwinds of a global pandemic, we have made significant progress with more jobs created, more families moving into our state, and more opportunity for all.”
House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, and Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, called the address a campaign speech that fell short in addressing concerns about the economy and crime.
“This budget is more about politics than anything else,” Kelly said.
A more encouraging review came from a conservative business group, the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
“Small business owners across the state are cautiously optimistic as the 2022 legislative session kicks off,” said Andy Markowski, the NFIB state director. “The governor and legislative leaders set the right tone in their speeches today, and now small business owners will anxiously await to see what policies ultimately pass this session.”