Reasons for optimism on inauguration day

In a farewell letter to Connecticut residents, departing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy observed, “We’re often too quick to criticize ourselves and our great state — faster even than our own neighbors as we compete with them to attract jobs and grow our local economy.”

Indeed, we Connecticut residents tend at times to be the glass-half-empty types. A gloomy attitude is not without some justification, however. Despite a couple of big state tax increases over the past decade, labor concessions and state workforce reductions, it never seems to be enough. State budget projections keep slipping into the red requiring more revenues or spending cuts or both.

And then there is the property tax burden at the local level.

Meanwhile, the state’s economic and jobs' recovery from the Great Recession has been the slowest slog since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But if there is ever a time to summon up some optimism it should be the inauguration of a new governor. It is a time for fresh perspectives and for hopefulness that the new guy, whether you voted for him or not, will improve the state by working effectively with its legislature.

Today that guy is incoming governor Ned Lamont, 64. Lamont’s only prior experience in elected office was as a Greenwich selectman, serving from 1987 to 1989. He has run for office repeatedly, unsuccessful in prior bids to become a U.S. senator and Connecticut governor.

On those shoulders rests the expectations of the day.

The great-grandson of former J. P. Morgan & Co. chairman Thomas W. Lamont, he was the beneficiary of a family fortune, achieving his own success in the telecommunications business. His wife, Ann Huntress Lamont, made another fortune as a successful venture capitalist.

Our expectation is that Lamont will strike a positive tone in his inaugural address, while acknowledging the difficult choices he and the legislature face. Lamont has promised to undertake “structural change” to curb state spending. He sees himself as a salesman for the state who can generate investment here.

There are reasons for increased optimism.

“(Economic) conditions are really very strong. We’ve got job openings that outnumber the people looking for work. … We are finally seeing wage growth pick up on cue.”

When was the last time you heard an economist talking that way about Connecticut? Those were the comments of Emily Mandel of Moody Analytics addressing the Connecticut Business and Industry’s Association’s 2019 Economic Summit and Outlook in Hartford, as reported by The Connecticut Mirror earlier this month.

According to Peter Gioia, the economist for the CBIA speaking at the same event, Connecticut has added more than 23,000 jobs in the past year, with strength in the good-paying fields of manufacturing, construction and financial services. Add another 10,400 jobs and Connecticut will finally return to the job numbers last seen before the recession hit in early 2008.

Unemployment is down to 4.1 percent. At $32.26 hourly, November 2018 average hourly earnings were up 4.2 percent from a year earlier. Connecticut ranked a respectable 20th in the nation for third-quarter income growth, according to the state comptroller's office.

Programs such as the Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative that the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board launched in 2016, featured in a recent front-page Day story, are better aligning education and training with job availability, tied largely to work expansion at Electric Boat in Groton and the suppliers that feed into it.

It is the challenge of Lamont and the incoming legislature to build on the economic growth and avoid policies that could place a drag on it.

Our new governor needs to follow up on his campaign promise to provide property tax relief.

Lamont should challenge his departmental leaders to find budget reductions. This will be difficult given a no-layoff agreement the Malloy administration provided in return for pension and benefit concessions, but it can be done.

The Lamont administration should work with the business community to improve the regulatory environment, removing redundant regulation enforcement and finding ways to improve process efficiency.

Connecticut must demonstrate a commitment to upgrade its aging transportation infrastructure. That requires finding new revenues. In our opinion that means the imposition of tolls. Painful as that may be, the state must fix transportation to attract business and industry.

Meanwhile, the new governor should insist that the legislature keep in place the guardrails it imposed two years ago to enforce fiscal discipline, including limits on borrowing and a volatility cap aimed at avoiding boom and bust budgeting.

So yes, there is reason for optimism. Turning that optimism into progress is the challenge that awaits.

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 Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. 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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