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Lamont talks State Pier deal, emergency powers

Gov. Ned Lamont said Tuesday — a day when the state's COVID-19 test positivity rate hit 10.72%, the highest in a while — that he thinks he will ask the legislature to extend his emergency authority, currently set to expire Feb. 9.

"If I just get another two-plus months, I think sometime in April we'll be in a really strong position to say, 'This is back to normal' or 'Let's give the governor 30 days,'" rather than another two months, Lamont said.

The governor said he's "not hugging onto power" but there are a lot of decisions to make on a timely basis, and he doesn't want certain programs — such as rent relief — to just end on Feb. 9.

Lamont said this in an hourlong, wide-ranging virtual meeting with The Day Editorial Board on Tuesday afternoon, which also touched on the transition in presidents, sports betting and online gaming, taxes, educational inequities and vaccine distribution.

The conversation started with State Pier. Lamont said he was concerned about the project, commenting, "There's no real cheerleaders for it except for me" and "I can't want to do this deal more than New London wants to do this deal, so we'll see."

In response, New London Mayor Michael Passero told The Day, "We're in a situation where we can't support the project, right now," and said if Lamont wanted the city behind the project, he could have made that happen by giving the city a seat at the table.

The Connecticut Port Authority board last February agreed to a $157 million plan, with utilities Ørsted and Eversource, to redevelop State Pier as a staging area for offshore wind projects.

"Nobody's doing me a favor to do this; I've got 168 towns saying I'll take — it's now over $200 million, by the way — I'll take this investment," Lamont said Tuesday. Asked about the increased investment, he said those are preliminary construction estimates that are still being negotiated.

Passero said the project is great but there shouldn't be a broad tax exemption; his sticking point is getting payment in lieu of taxes. Lamont said he'll guarantee PILOT funds for as long as he's governor but couldn't guarantee them for future governors, calling that "bad practice." Passero said he doesn't understand that because this is a 10-year deal.

Paul Mounds, Lamont's chief of staff, said the administration thinks "this is a huge economic development project for New London and southeastern Connecticut," pointing to the creation of local jobs.

Passero said any economic development project will deliver those secondary benefits and questioned, "Why should the City of New London alone subsidize the lost property taxes for this project that's delivering benefits to the whole state?" He said there's plenty of money, that there's no need to cheat the city's taxpayers.

Two different examples Passero gave of being left out of conversations are that he still doesn't have the seat on the CPA board he was promised, and that he hasn't heard from Ørsted or Eversource since March.

Lamont and Mounds said it's in the hands of the legislature to get Passero a seat on the board. The mayor acknowledged it was a legislative fix but thinks it could have happened "if there was a true commitment from the administration."

On high alert in Hartford and D.C.

Lamont announced in a news release Tuesday he is "authorizing the deployment of more than 100 members of the Connecticut National Guard to Washington, D.C. to aid and facilitate the peaceful transition of presidential power."

As for the state Capitol, he said we're "planning for any eventuality," with the National Guard, State Capitol Police, Hartford police and state police ready to step in if necessary. He said it might be worth having state employees work remotely for a few days.

Lamont said of President Donald Trump, "I wish he'd resign, put everybody's mind at ease."

Gaming bills, taxes and education disparities

Lamont said he thinks legalizing sports betting and online gaming is "more important than ever," as the world has moved into a more virtual space during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The governor said his mindset is to "stick with the girl you took to the party," saying the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes are in a favored position. But he also doesn't want to get "stuck in the courts for 10 years," and wants to make sure the taxpayers of Connecticut get a fair deal.

In terms of generating revenue, Lamont said he's hesitant to raise taxes on the wealthy, saying he thinks the state can balance the budget other ways. He thinks that would put Connecticut "at an enormous disadvantage" to some other nearby states, "not to mention the obvious folks like Texas and Florida," and would rather see capital gains taxes happen at the federal level.

Lamont thinks the pandemic has "exposed the educational gap in a really serious way, just like it did for health care disparities."

When it comes issues such as minority teacher recruitment and zoning rules that are friendlier to affordable housing, Lamont said he is in favor of incentivizing cities and towns rather than penalizing them.

Vaccine update

Asked Monday about adding people ages 65-74 and younger people with comorbidities to Phase 1b, Lamont said "adding more groups just means other people get pushed to the back of the line."

But on Tuesday, the federal government recommended that both groups be added, as did the allocation subcommittee of the COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group. Lamont said he would "probably" go along with recommendations from the advisory group.

Lamont said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar called Tuesday and said Connecticut will be getting an extra allocation of vaccines because the state has been good at getting them into people's arms.

The first vaccination clinic has happened at every long-term care facility in Connecticut, and Lamont thinks that in less than a month — after nursing home residents get their second dose — we'll feel more confident about expanding visitation.

Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London said it was treating 45 COVID-19 patients on Tuesday; Westerly Hospital reported it had five.

Day Staff Writer Brian Hallenbeck contributed to this report.

e.moser@theday.com

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