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Optimism, pragmatism face off on day of promise

January 10, 2019

Filing into the historic armory at noon on Wednesday, James Smith, the Webster Bank chairman who co-chaired last year’s commission to solve the fiscal crisis, greeted Sen. Len Fasano, his fellow Republican.

“It’s a bright new day!”

“It’s a new day,” quipped Fasano, R-North Haven, the Senate Republican leader.

Ah, the pragmatist in a sea of wild-eyed optimists. Fasano was half-joking. It’s hard not to see the possibilities of the moment as a new governor — any new governor — takes the oath amid all the hoopla Connecticut can muster.

“Every session is a bright new day,” Fasano said. “It’s all about sitting down and talking. He wants to move the state in the right direction.”

“He,” of course, is Gov. Ned Lamont, who spoke strongly and clearly in two speeches Wednesday about building up expensive state services and making Connecticut’s economy grow by becoming more friendly to business.

“I will not allow our next four years to be defined by a fiscal crisis,” the Democratic governor said. “We owe our kids, our extended families, nothing less.”

The question is, what exactly do we owe ourselves when it comes to pulling the levers of policy? A minimum wage hike to $15, a paid family and medical leave law, restoration of lost services, high-speed rail and so much else?

Or is it a battening down of the ledgers at a time when Connecticut still faces annual shortfalls in the range of $2 billion and rising?

On Opening Day Wednesday, those forces played out like cold-pressed olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar at a celebratory feast, each flavoring formidable. Rich optimism, the sense that the way to prosperity is investment. And rock-solid pragmatism, an ethic about the state living within its means and chipping away at those shortfalls.

”Don’t kill my bills,” newly seated Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said to Chris Soto, his former House colleague who’s now Lamont’s legislative director.

Those bills include the controversial paid leave and measures to shore up Obamacare in Connecticut as backward federal policies cut into coverage for low-income Americans.

”I want to do stuff. I think we were elected with a mandate to govern,” Lesser said. “You have to make the books balance and the governor gets it but we also have to get out of this funk.”

The bad attitude that former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy addressed in his farewell letter to the state on Tuesday is “an awfully expensive habit and I think that hurts the economy.”

“I believe in our capacity to do more to meet our creative needs,” said sen. Martin Looney, D-New haven, the Senate president pro-tem. “We have to be creative.”

That theme of creativity came up a lot. “You have to set the bar high,” said Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield.

The pragmatists, mostly but not entirely Republicans, spent this day of possibilities vowing to work well with Lamont.

“It seems like a breath of fresh air,” said Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, the House GOP leader. “The problem as always is not the subject matter but how they want to implement it and that’s what we have to really figure out....I don’t know anybody who doesn’t support paid family medical leave, it’s who’s paying for it.”

At the exact moment when Lamont, leader of the optimists, said, “We’re all in this together,” the sun emerged from a cloud outside and shined through the 8-pointed stained glass windows framed in giant arches in the House chamber.

J.R. Romano, Republican state chairman and voice of the state’s anti-tax movement, smiled. “Are we going to be in the trust fund?”

Lamont, heir to a Wall Street fortune, then talked about the Connecticut’s great businesses — Sikorsky, Electric Boat and more — and said, “We are no longer a place that is viewed as hospitable or encouraging to new businesses.” He added, “The taxpayers of Connecticut can no longer afford to subsidize inefficiency.”

Now Romano was pumped. “He doesn’t really sound like a Democrat.”

Then Lamont turned to a dreamland of expenditures, snapping Romano back to form, saying the governor occupies a “false reality.”

”When you’re in a leadership position, you can’t be all things to all people,” he said.

The deals will come soon enough — Thursday, actually. Wednesday was about the big picture, and there was room for both effusive optimism and pragmatic caution.

”We have to not just change what gets done but how it gets done,” said Sen. Alex Bergstein, R-Greenwich, a first-term senator. “We’re done with obstructionism, we’re done with deception, we’re done with all negativity.”

Now that is a high bar, but fitting the day’s mood.

”The first thing,” Bergstein said, “is to establish trust, understanding and respect.”

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