Governor talks wind, 'debt diet,' tolls at Chamber address

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New London — Looking out at the ocean beyond a crowded room at Ocean Beach Park, Gov. Ned Lamont said this part of the state "is going to be the hub, the center, of renewable energy, not just for the next five years but for generations."

As for nuclear energy, Lamont thanked Dominion Energy for being "good partners" in reaching a 10-year deal to keep Millstone Power Station operational, which he said gives some time to plan going forward.

"Wind and solar, that's a great 20-year, 30-year solution, but it's not a near-term solution, and we don't really have much natural gas," the governor said.

Lamont addressed the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut at a business luncheon Thursday, his first time doing so since taking office. Along with wind, he offered other positive notes about southeastern Connecticut, stressing that "we can count on" increased submarine production — and therefore hiring — at Electric Boat, and said he's going to get the Interstate 95 visitor centers open again.

From a statewide perspective, Lamont focused on his "debt diet," a plan to cut more than $600 million per year in bonding.

"Schools and affordable housing, a lot of my priorities we're going to do, but a lot of those nice-to-haves that we've been bonding over the years, I'm going to draw a line on," he said.

Both Southeastern Connecticut Housing Alliance Chairman Norton Wheeler and The Arc Eastern Connecticut CEO Kathleen Stauffer voiced concern about funding for affordable housing in the Q&A portion. The governor's proposed budget does not include any new bonding for affordable housing.

Lamont said there are "hundreds of millions of dollars in the bonding pipeline" from previously bonded money to build affordable housing over the next few years but said, "I'm not going to overpromise you. I am being pretty strict about what we're doing in terms of spending and what we're doing in terms of the debt diet."

Lamont added that every legislator comes into his office and essentially says, "I know we're on the debt diet, I'm 100 percent with you, but I just need this one item in my district."

Other attendees asked about funding for tourism and about expanding rail service in eastern Connecticut. Asked about the status of the former Seaside Regional Center, Lamont said he "can't tell you the specifics on that."

On tolls, he said he can't "think of a more important priority to get this state going again, offering maximum discounts to Connecticut people."

Lamont criticized the Republicans' Prioritize Progress plan to address transportation infrastructure in Connecticut, which reserves a set amount of bonds to be used solely for transportation, starting with a commitment of $703.7 million in 2020.

Proponents of the plan stress that it operates within the state's $2 billion bond cap, while Lamont worries that adding transportation bonding into the mix will squeeze out bonding for schools and affordable housing.

"I'm not going to let that happen," he said.

Morning Consult poll results released Thursday show that Lamont has the fifth-highest disapproval rate of any governor, with 38 percent disapproving of his performance and 33 percent approving. Last year's results put former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy as the least popular governor in America, with a disapproval rate of 72 percent.

Asked about the poll after the luncheon, Lamont told reporters, "I didn't step into a $3 billion deficit because I wanted to be Mr. Popularity; I wanted to solve the problem, and we're going to solve our fiscal situation in an honest way."

e.moser@theday.com

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