Incoming chairman: CBIA “at a high point” after election

By Kevin Zimmerman

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Newly-elected chairman of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association John Ciulla views the coming year with enthusiasm – admittedly tempered by some significant concerns – for both the association and the Nutmeg State’s business climate at large.

“I’d say the CBIA is at a high point right now,” Ciulla – who is also president of Webster Financial Corp. and Webster Bank — told the Business Journal. “We are operating from a position of strength, especially when it comes to our goal of making the Connecticut economy the top issue for all policymakers.”

The Hartford-based organization regularly endorses political candidates whose voting records it considers to be in line with the business community’s concerns on such issues as tax hikes, wage disputes, and regulatory penalties. This November, however, the CBIA for the first time took what Ciulla called “a more aggressive approach” by making donations to its preferred candidates.

“We felt that rather than take the aspirational approach, we wanted to try and really make a difference,” he said. “Being more directly involved in the electoral process gave us the best opportunity to do that.”

The group spent some $400,000 to support 15 lawmakers, including incumbent Rep. Jonathan Steinberg (D-136th, representing Westport), who claimed a narrow victory over Republican challenger Cathy Walsh. Only six of the CBIA’s 85 House endorsements were defeated, while on the state Senate side, just one of its 22 endorsees failed to be elected.

Ciulla said the CBIA was “very careful” not to make its decisions about donations and endorsements along partisan party lines, but to work toward electing anyone “for a pro-business, business-friendly environment” in the state.

The net result of the election, he added, is “a more bipartisan mix in both houses, which bodes well for the business agenda. Everyone on both sides understands that the strength of the Connecticut economy is the real issue.”

The state’s first legislative session of the new year, scheduled to begin Jan. 4, will find 18 Democrats and 18 Republicans in the Senate, with 79 Democrats and 72 Republicans in the House.

Though the CBIA is confident that, minus a significant gap in control of the two houses, it can better work with members of both parties to make Connecticut – regularly criticized for being insufficiently business-friendly – more so, Ciulla admitted that such work is easier said than done.

“The most immediate challenges are the state’s fiscal policy and its fiscal situation,” he said. “The budget deficits and tax increases have an undeniably chilling effect. It’s hard to attract businesses when you’re facing something like that, that’s not easily fixable. When you have a $1.5 billion deficit, it’s hard to just keeping raising taxes or cutting expenses as a solution.”

Ciulla also hopes the CBIA can help to effect enforcement of the state’s constitutional spending cap, which Connecticut lawmakers have tended to treat more as a nice idea than an actual mandate. That viewpoint is shared by Webster Bank Chairman and CEO – and former CBIA board member — James C. Smith, who testified before the state’s Spending Cap Commission on Sept. 7.

In the meantime, the CBIA hopes to work closely with the legislature and Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy to reach workable solutions. “We have a really good relationship with the governor and his folks,” Ciulla said. “[CBIA President and CEO] Joe Brennan has been here for many years, and has had a lot of productive conversations with the administration in Hartford. With both sides in the House and the Senate talking about the importance of finding fiscal solutions to our problems, we all feel that the CBIA is positioned to have a stronger voice when working with Hartford.”

Asked what the group can realistically expect from the incoming Trump administration, Ciulla – like most observers – was unable to give a definitive answer.

“That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it?” he said. “We’re just going to have to wait and see for a while. Any action on the president-elect’s agenda will take a while to translate into policy that will have a direct economic and financial impact on Connecticut.”

He added, however, that “there’s been a shift in enthusiasm and more positive thoughts” about how business might be affected by the new administration. “The potential easing of the regulatory landscape absolutely could have a positive impact on Connecticut, and be a potential generator of economic activity.

“On the negative side,” he added, “we’re heavily dependent on trade, with a lot of industries here that have close ties to international trade. There could be a negative impact there.” Ciulla also voiced concerns about the possible negative impacts of the new administration’s attitudes towards immigrants.

That said, he added, “what was promised on the campaign trail and how it translates into action” remains to be seen.

Ciulla further noted that Webster Bank, which has 2,700 employees in Connecticut, “has a vested interest in solving these problems. We go as our customers go, and as the state goes.”

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