Editorial Lamont’s ‘think big, act boldly’ budget
Gov. Ned Lamont on his inauguration last month declared “This is our chance to reinvent Connecticut — to think big, act boldly.”
In his first budget address Wednesday he didn’t forget his lofty vow and successfully detailed how he would right the state that has been teetering on the edge of a fiscal cliff for years.
Lamont sounded more like a businessman than a seasoned politician in his nearly 45-minute speech, a bit uncomfortable with the teleprompter and needy for applause. But that’s OK — he challenged the General Assembly to talk with him if they disagree and get the budget done on time.
It won’t be easy. Although his speech drew applause 37 times, and several standing ovations, for every “bold” proposal, there is certain to be pushback from legislators, municipalities, unions or special interest groups.
The new governor’s aim is to cut debt and promote economic growth, a pragmatic direction. He needed to lay a path for addressing structural deficits, instead of tinkering with tax rates and applying Band-Aids.
Largely, Lamont did that with his $21.2 billion budget.
Teacher and state employee pensions. The teachers’ pension is “badly underfunded” and if left unfixed could require contributions higher than the state pays for education. One of the most controversial proposals in Lamont’s budget is to shift some of the pension payments to municipalities, scaled by ability to pay higher-than-median salaries. Former Gov. Dannel Malloy tried a version of this — shifting one-third of the cost — and drew howls. Lamont’s plan could be considered a “lite,” but more equitable, plan. For state employees, he would tie Cost of Living raises to the plan’s return on investments, but going no lower than 1-percent a year. This seems reasonable, but requires negotiations.
Transportation. Everyone agrees something must be done to relieve gridlock and fix crumbling bridges and highways, but can’t agree on how to pay for it. Lamont offered two toll scenarios — a trucks-only version in his campaign platform, and a broader electronic tolling that would include cars, with discounts for Connecticut EZPass users. This is sure to be one of the most debated — and deservedly so — proposals this session.
Debt diet. The governor wants to tighten bonding and proposed that only projects tied to economic or workforce development or cost-saving shared services will gain consideration. This will be unpopular because every legislator wants to bring home money for pet projects, but at first glance is a reasonable way to get debt off the automatic spigot.
Lamont eschewed raising the income tax or gas tax, but is proposing to broaden the sales tax mainly by eliminating exemptions for services. Digital goods would be taxed the same as over-the-counter purchases, for example.
For increasing revenue, he slipped in legalizing marijuana. Everyone else is doing it, but it seems contradictory to levy “sin taxes” on sugary drinks “not for the money,” but to legalize pot “for the money.”
Any good budget speech will include quality of life issues, and Lamont glowed in the applause for raising the minimum wage gradually to $15 an hour, enacting a Paid Family and Medical Leave program, and fully funding clean energy and energy efficiency programs.
This is the time to seriously examine the proposals instead of default to an automatic “can’t do it.”
Lamont needs to seize the honeymoon period that only comes once for an elected official.