Attracting more business to Connecticut, reducing some taxes and tuition fees, legalizing marijuana – and, of course, bringing tolls back to state highways – were some of the themes of Gov. Ned Lamont’s “State of the State” address at the state Capitol’s Hall of the House of Representatives this afternoon.
“The state of our state is strong and getting stronger – but we still have a long way to go,” he said.
The governor mostly ignored the partisan fighting that has marked much of his first year in office, insisting that “We are just getting started and we are much better off when we work together.”
He also declined to use the word “tolls” when speaking briefly about his 10-year, $19 billion CT2030 transportation initiative.
“Almost all of us here understand that if we do not speed up, our economy will slow down,” Lamont said, calling the issue “the elephant in the room.
“Republicans and Democrats alike agree on the scope of the job and the new money needed to do the work,” he said. “And I know the choices to fund these improvements are between the Democrats’ plan to levy a small user fee on the heavy trucks that do the most of damage to our bridges and the Republicans’ proposal to divert money from the Rainy Day Fund,” he added. “You are in the room where it happens, so let’s vote to get this state moving again.
“We can do it right now – can I see a show of hands?” he joked, before saying that a solution would arrive “soon enough.”
The governor also voiced a need “to reset our state’s relationship with the business community. In the last year, I have personally visited nearly 100 businesses,” including Electric Boat, which now has over 12,000 Connecticut employees – the most in 30 years – and will be hiring 18,000 over the next decade.
Lamont singled out several members of his cabinet – “My motto has always been, hire great people and give them the freedom to make it happen” – including Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner David Lehman, whose team has “brought together more than 400 investors, developers, and municipal leaders to launch ctopportunityzones.com, where thousands of people have taken a look at areas of the state that have been left behind for too long.”
He also noted that Department of Administrative Services Commissioner Josh Geballe will soon roll out a “one-stop process for businesses” that have had to individually visit the a number of departments “just to do business with the state.
“Josh is also planning for the tsunami of state employee retirements over the next few years,” Lamont added, “which he sees as an opportunity for government to show that we can do more with less. For example, based on my second executive order, we are already centralizing IT and personnel to provide better services at about 20% less cost.”
Within Fairfield County, the governor singled out Stamford. “Remember those headlines from Stamford about the world’s largest finance trading floor sitting vacant? No longer!” he exclaimed, noting WWE’s plans to take over the former UBS building at 677 Washington Blvd.
Mentioning various credit agencies’ and investors’ upgrades of their outlook on Connecticut – and encouraging Wall Street Journal headlines – Lamont said: “Yes Connecticut, we got our mojo back, but that only matters if we have an economy that works for everybody, starting with a vibrant and growing middle class.”
On education, the governor said, “I’ve said it before, Connecticut has always had the best-trained, best educated, most productive workforce in the world, and that starts with the best teachers in the world. Our budget made Connecticut’s largest-ever investment in K-12 education. That takes some of the burden off of property taxes, and it provides our teachers the resources they need to teach everything, including computer coding, laser welding and the arts.”
With more employers requiring post-secondary training, Lamont said his administration was acting to make higher education more affordable “so no student gives up his or her dreams because they cannot afford the cost.”
Starting this year, UConn will eliminate tuition for all students of families earning less than $50,000 a year, and community college will be debt-free for recent high school grads.
In addition, “more and more of our Connecticut employers are paying down student loans if you take a job with them – one more reason, Connecticut graduates, for you to stay right here in Connecticut,” he declared.
The state’s $15 minimum wage law, “which has already helped lift thousands of families out of poverty,” will help more than 500,000 Connecticut workers “receive their fair share of a growing economy” over the next five years, he declared.
It is also now easier for senior citizens to remain in the state, thanks to tax reductions on social security and pension income, along with property tax relief for veterans and volunteer first responders and the elimination of the business entity tax for small businesses.
“I’m also proposing we work together to redesign the state’s economic incentives to focus on new, good paying jobs in growth sectors, with a special emphasis on distressed communities that have been left behind,” Lamont said. “Some of the best investments we can make as a state are in companies that are already here. Rather than rely on risky up-front grants to lure out-of-state companies we’re introducing performance-based incentives and rewarding companies that create good-paying jobs here in Connecticut – all at less risk to taxpayers.”
The governor announced he is proposing legislation that will curb annual cost increases so doctors’ visits and prescription drugs “stop consuming more and more of our paychecks year after year. Similar measures have saved patients and businesses billions of dollars in Massachusetts.”
Lamont also took some swipes at the White House, addressing the cutting of federal funds for programs like Planned Parenthood (“Our budget will start making up the difference”), its controversial approach to dealing with illegal immigrants (“Connecticut knows immigrants and refugees enrich the communities that offer them shelter”) and its stance on climate change.
“The White House may not believe in climate change, but the Navy does,” the governor said. “The admiral who oversees our nation’s submarine fleet told me one of the big selling points of our submarine base in Groton is our higher elevation. New construction is moving up the hill and they’re moving their utilities from the basement to the top floor.
“Look,” he quipped, “if the submarine fleet worries about rising tides, so should we.”
Turning to legalizing recreational marijuana – a subject that drew decidedly more lukewarm applause than most of his other topics – Lamont said Connecticut is working with its neighboring states to create a responsible position.
“Like it or not, legalized marijuana is a short drive away in Massachusetts and New York is soon to follow,” he said. “Coordinated regional regulation is our best chance to protect public health by displacing illicit sellers with trusted providers. And it’s an opportunity to right the wrongs of a war on drugs that has disproportionately impacted our minority communities.
“Right now, what you can buy legally in Massachusetts could land you in prison for up to a year in Connecticut,” he continued. “We just marked the 100th anniversary of prohibition. How did that work out? The patchwork of cannabis and vaping laws are impossible to enforce.”
Noting that, during the last session, the state raised the legal age for tobacco and vaping to 21, the governor repeated his vow to “work with our neighboring states to make our laws safe, uniform, and enforceable.
“In similar fashion,” he continued, “I want to work with you to ensure we stand up a responsible sports betting platform that promotes economic growth for our state and is fair to our tribal partners. Together, let’s work to ensure Connecticut isn’t left behind as our neighboring states continue to move forward on gaming while also avoiding endless litigation.”
The governor also lauded improvements to the DMV process – “Next up, license renewal on an iPad!” – the voting process, with same-day voter registration, and the settlement of the lawsuit with the state’s hospitals.
“Results matter,” he said. “We’ve shown government can work for the people. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together.”
And for those who still bemoan the state of the state? “No more badmouthing the great state of Connecticut,” Lamont declared. “The rest of the country is looking at our state in a new light, and so should its leaders. Optimism can be contagious. No more rose-colored glasses.
“We have a way to go,” he said, “but we are making significant progress on your behalf every day.”