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Lembo Legacy: Fiscal stability and openness

Only a small percentage of Connecticut residents could name the state comptroller if asked, even though it is one of six statewide elected offices under the state Constitution — along with governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, attorney general and secretary of the state.

That Constitution provides a scanty description of the job: "The comptroller shall adjust and settle all public accounts and demands, except grants and orders of the general assembly. He shall prescribe the mode of keeping and rendering all public accounts."

This thin framework can allow a comptroller to define the position, using it to advocate for reforms, for example, or merely functioning as a caretaker.

Kevin J. Lembo used the position about as effectively as it could be used. Over the past decade he has been among the state's most influential public servants, helping to substantially improve the fiscal stability of a state that was careening from one fiscal crisis to the next and significantly enhancing government transparency.

So it was with sadness that we learned last week that due to health problems Lembo, 58, will resign at the end of the year, leaving him one year short of completing his third four-year term. We wish him the best in dealing with that medical issue — described by his office as a serious and debilitating cardiac condition.

Gov. Ned Lamont will name a temporary successor.

In seeing Lembo step down, this editorial board loses a kindred political soul. In our regular meetings with the comptroller, we found someone who agreed that public policy needed to be leavened with pragmatism. His statement on the comptroller's website well describes our own approach to governance: "I'm a firm believer in public programs that help lift people up — but do so in ways that are responsible and financially sustainable."

Lembo explored running for governor in 2018. He would have been a candidate deserving of serious consideration. Ultimately, he declined to run. It is unclear whether his health played a factor.

As comptroller, Lembo pushed from the start of his tenure to stabilize state finances. For decades, Connecticut's budgets had gone through boom or bust cycles tied to the ups and downs of Wall Street. In good years, surpluses were acquired and spent when income tax revenues poured in from the state's wealthy investor class. In bad years the budgetary bottom fell out and the legislature scrambled to make cuts and implement tax increases — on all of us — to balance the books.

Lembo's call to set a goal of accumulating a 15% budget reserve, necessary to fill revenue gaps during economic downturns, seemed a pie-in-the-sky proposal at a time when Connecticut was having difficulty accumulating any surplus.

Pushed by Lembo's efforts and aided by a rare Republican and Democrat compromise, the legislature in 2017 passed a series of reforms and caps restricting the legislature's ability to spend state income tax receipts when they spike in a boom cycle and instead directing them to the budget reserve. This approach has helped Connecticut achieve that 15% reserve goal and send $1.7 billion in additional surplus to the pension fund, improving its outlook — another of Lembo's goals to improve fiscal stability.

In a move that placed his role as a public servant above politics, Lembo's office created the "Open Connecticut" portal that can be accessed directly or off the Comptroller's website. There the public can access every payment made by the state, down to invoices; see how much those employed by the state are compensated and how much is spent on pensions; explore the state budget and compare what was budgeted with what was spent; and see what businesses receive tax credits.

One might not expect a Democrat, such as Lembo, to prioritize fiscal scrutiny, but his statement on the Open Connecticut portal says it all: "It's your money. You have a right to know."

Lembo also made sure state financial incentives provided to businesses were analyzed for level of effectiveness. He has been a strong advocate for access to health care and for gay rights. Lembo was the first openly gay person elected to statewide office in Connecticut. He and his spouse, Charles, have three children.

Connecticut is a better place for Lembo's service. The Day adds its voice to the appreciative comments that have come from both sides of the political aisle.

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, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser 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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