Inclusiveness playing well in Lamont's big tent

As the Democratic candidate for governor, Ned Lamont followed a time-honored campaign script of going long on platitudes but short on specifics for how he intended to govern.

As governor-elect, however, Lamont is showing a style that is purposeful and collaborative. The Lamont policy approach is open and refreshing. Lamont’s outreach to Republicans, and those beyond the political insider relm, is an auspicious beginning.

On Nov. 9, Lamont and Lieutenant Governor-elect Susan Bysiewicz began a statewide economic development tour with a first stop at the Garde Arts Center in New London. After years of lagging behind, southeastern Connecticut is outpacing other state regions for economic growth. Increased submarine design and construction at Electric Boat is the primary driver. The recent announcement naming New London as the home port for the nation’s largest offshore wind farm development also holds promise for the region’s economic viability.

Lamont invited Democratic and Republican legislators from the region on Nov. 9 as well as local leaders from business, labor, education, and municipal government.

“I need people to stand up and believe that we’ve got some great times ahead of us in this state,” Lamont said. “We’re going to get through this fiscal thing.”

“This fiscal thing” is the estimated $4 billion budget deficit the state faces in the next two years. “This fiscal thing” includes surging pension benefit costs of state workers that threaten the financial health of the state for many years.

Lamont’s big-tent inclusiveness was on display again Nov. 27 in Willimantic when he and Bysiewicz hosted a policy summit at Eastern Connecticut State University. After introductory remarks, more than 300 attendees were organized into 15 policy committees Lamont created to solicit advice. The attendees at the Willimantic summit again were a diverse assortment of business executives, labor leaders, political opponents, non-profit managers and social activists.

The 15 committees are: jobs/economy, arts/culture/tourism, housing, health care, human services, criminal justice, public safety, education, women, shared services, transportation, energy, environment, agriculture, and digital strategy.

The committees spent last week organizing and making assignments. Each committee is writing a list of recommendations to be delivered to Lamont’s transition team − before Dec. 12. That's a short turnaround. The potential is great that this effort will amount to more show than substance, but we'd love to see Lamont demonstrate that our skepticism was misplaced.

Lamont’s pre-inaugural collaboration is playing well with local municipal and legislative officials.

“I believe in working across the aisle with persons of good faith for the common good,” Stonington Republican First Selectman Rob Simmons, who participated in the Willimantic summit, told the Connecticut Mirror. “I believe when elections are over it’s time to get to work — and govern.” Simmons is on a committee to find cost savings through shared municipal services.

Economic growth is the priority Lamont trumpeted during his transition tour. But the governor-elect also said he seeks structural changes in how the state raises revenues and spends tax dollars.

In New Haven on Nov. 15, Lamont said he wants to avoid tapping Connecticut’s forecasted $2.1 billion “rainy day fund” of budget reserves to balance the budget. Those budget reserves, built largely on Fairfield County financial investment profits, are a tempting target for Democratic lawmakers who would like to restore aid to municipalities and social services.

Early projections show a budget shortfall of $1.7 billion for the general fund in the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2019. The deficit projection in the second budget is $2.3 billion. Lamont must present a budget plan to the General Assembly by the middle of February.

“There’s a tendency to want to spend (the rainy-day fund) and defer the tough choices we know we have to make,” Lamont said. “But you know how volatile our income taxes can be … So, I don’t want to patch, patch, patch through the rainy-day fund and other short-term fixes. I want a real fix.”

The “real fix” involves significant labor savings and restructuring of state employee retirement benefits. If Lamont turns there, as we feel he must, he will face strong opposition from the employee unions and from fellow Democrats in the General Assembly. Lamont’s broad and strategic approach to the next state budget battle is a welcome development, but it will be his performance when the going gets tough that matters most. There is a world of difference between the atmospherics and optimism of a government power transition period versus the hard-nosed deal making and real politic of governing.

But first impressions are important. And Ned Lamont is making a good one. 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Pat Richardson, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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