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Gov.-elect Need Lamont faces upcoming fiscal challenges

December 31, 2018

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Ned Lamont won the governor’s race with strong support from liberal Democrats, but their euphoria over his victory will likely be tempered by the fiscal realities in the Nutmeg State.

With Connecticut facing major budget problems and a projected deficit of $1.7 billion in the next fiscal year, Lamont will not be able to placate all the groups that supported him.

“I am sure that Gov.-elect Lamont is aware of the voices around him about money for this and money for that — charging down the path unimpeded,” said Senate Republican leader Len Fasano.

Lamont has already warned he will not spend the projected $2.1 billion in the rainy day fund to close the budget gap, meaning cuts could be ahead. At the same time, Lamont will be dealing with a newly energized legislature, where Democrats made strong gains in the state House of Representatives and Senate.

Much more will be known about Lamont’s approach when he releases his first two-year budget in February. In a recent speech to the Connecticut NAACP at a hotel in downtown Hartford, Lamont warned the crowd of 450 that it will not be easy.

“I can’t promise you it’s a cakewalk for the next four years,” Lamont said. “We’ve got a lot of hard work we’ve got to do in terms of balancing this budget — investing in our future, investing in our kids, getting the state moving again, creating jobs. And I can’t do it without each and every one of you. I just want you to know: We’re in this together, but I’m a believer in this state.”

Historically, Lamont has not been a free spender. When he served on the Greenwich finance board more than 25 years ago, Lamont angered some liberal Democrats when he joined with Republicans to provide the crucial vote for cuts in the Greenwich town budget.

When Lamont ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in November 1990 in Greenwich, he referred to himself at times as “a fiscally conservative Democrat” who was willing to scrutinize spending.

Deputy House Speaker Pro Tem Robert Godfrey, a Danbury Democrat who is among the longest-serving legislators, said Lamont is in a difficult position.

“Expectations are high, and I think they are a little too high,” Godfrey said.

Part of that expectation comes with a more liberal legislature. Democrats picked up 12 seats in the state House and five seats in the state Senate. Two of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, Paul Doyle of Wethersfield and Gayle Slossberg of Milford, retired. And in the House, half of the 92 Democrats will be part of the legislature’s Progressive Caucus.

Rep. Josh Elliott, a Hamden Democrat who is among the legislature’s most liberal members and is a leader of the Progressive Caucus, said Lamont did not promise lavish spending during the campaign.

“In terms of broad programs that he was going to dump money into, I haven’t heard a list of investments,” Elliott said. “I’ve heard no promises yet. ... Because he made very few campaign promises, he does have flexibility.”

Elliott wants to increase taxes on the rich in order to help fund social programs. Lamont, though, has said repeatedly that he does not want to raise the rates on the income tax, which generates about half of the state’s revenue. Elliott said Lamont’s status as a multimillionaire impacts his thinking.

“He’s not necessarily in daily contact with people who are making $50,000 or less and having a hard time,” Elliott said. “That’s not his social circle. It’s not his day-to-day reality. He’s been very clear that he doesn’t want to punish success through our system of taxation.”

While Lamont may not have promised any major new programs, some of the committees advising him during his transition have recommended big-ticket items, like free tuition at community colleges, which would cost an estimated $48 million per year.

The committees also recommended increasing the state minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2023 and establishing paid family and medical leave, both of which would cost tens of millions of dollars.

“Certainly, there’s an expectation from these groups that this was a mandate, and I think that’s a mischaracterization,” Fasano said.

Fasano is particularly concerned about recommendations to install highway tolls and increase the gasoline tax as well as any spending on new programs when existing programs are underfunded.

“We don’t fund PILOT fully,” he said, referring to payments made by the state to cities and towns for tax-exempt property. “We don’t fund education fully. The governor cut Meals on Wheels. So you want to add more programs?”

Former longtime state AFL-CIO president John Olsen, who first met Lamont when they both lived in Greenwich in the 1980s, said legislators need to look at the broader picture. He said they cannot forget that the state needs economic growth that can come when Republicans and Democrats work together to improve the state. Olsen cited the decision by Infosys, a giant information technology consulting firm, to bring 1,000 jobs to Hartford, which was helped in part by Lamont’s recruiting efforts.

“We need some consensus wins,” Olsen said. “Everyone wants to bring jobs in here. If we don’t grow, we die.”

Scot X. Esdaile, the longtime president of the state NAACP, said he will give Lamont time to provide funding for the cities and to fill his cabinet with leaders from diverse backgrounds.

“No matter how you look at the whole landscape, at the end of the day, the urban communities delivered for him,” Esdaile said, adding that 94 percent of African-American voters chose Lamont. “When it comes down to cuts and splicing, he needs to know that he needs to deliver for the communities the delivered for him.”

Esdaile said his organization had to turn away 150 people who wanted to see the governor-elect at a recent Connecticut State Conference of NAACP Branches event.

“It shows how people are thirsty on getting a return on our political investment,” he said.

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Online: https://cour.at/2VixNGw

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Information from: Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com

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