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Local Republicans receptive to message of fiscal restraint but say Lamont falls short in post-pandemic plans

While local elected Republicans were receptive to Gov. Ned Lamont’s message of fiscal restraint in his budget address Wednesday, they said his two-year spending plan doesn’t do enough to address the state’s post-pandemic problems.

“His commitment to no broad based tax increases, no reduction in municipal aid, not cutting services. That was refreshing,” said freshman state Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington.

Lamont’s $46 billion budget relies on federal funding and state reserves to close deficits while steering clear of tax hikes.

To Howard, and other Republicans, Lamont’s pledge to not institute broad-based tax increases could make Connecticut a more attractive place to live and do business, while also reducing further strain on residents and businesses as they try to climb out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Howard is also supportive of Lamont’s plan to continue to modernize state government as a way to achieve savings.

The pandemic, which led to an unprecedented number of people working remotely, has sped up that process, Lamont said Wednesday.

“One of the many lessons learned over the last year was one taught to both the public and private sectors — large-scale office space may be a thing of the past,” Lamont said. “While we’re already moving in this direction, we have sped up the process of reducing the real estate footprint of the state government, shedding extra capacity no longer needed with a technology-enabled workforce, and returning those properties to the municipal tax rolls.”

Several Republicans expressed concern about the reliance on federal stimulus aid, saying that money is only a short-term solution and does not fix problems created by the state’s legacy debt.

“Our future debt is still a very large burden,” said state Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme. “I understand the use of one-time federal dollars to get the state on better footing due to the pandemic, but there’s too much focus in the short term on federal funding, without putting in place any longer-term solutions.”

Connecticut likely will operate very differently when more people are vaccinated and the state is no longer in a public health emergency, and Lamont’s budget, at first glance, doesn’t account for that, Carney said.

“When this is in the rear-view mirror, what’s it all going to look like?” he said.

State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said Lamont has done a good job navigating the state through the crisis, but his budget “could’ve done so much more in terms of setting the direction as we recover from the pandemic.”

In particular, she said she would like to see more direction given to schools, including the creation of a standard virtual learning program and a specific plan for getting teachers and students back into the classroom full time.

Cheeseman also would like to see more targeted state support for small businesses, and said the aid from the federal government isn't enough.

“This is the opening salvo,” she said of Lamont’s 25-minute budget address. “Everyone is going to have a different view.”

In addition to federal aid, Lamont’s budget assumes revenue generated from the legalization of recreational marijuana and sports betting and online gaming — none of which is currently in place in Connecticut.

“He does talk about spending a lot of money and relying on revenue sources that are not yet developed,” said Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme. “There are going to be some concerns about that.”

Formica and other Republicans interviewed were skeptical of Lamont's proposed revenue sources to fund the state's transportation projects: a mileage fee on heavy trucks and money generated from the state's participation in a regional climate initiative, designed to cut carbon emissions by at least 26% in the next 10 years.

Both proposals likely would result in costs being passed on to consumers, Formica said, putting more burden on lower and middle-class families and residents in the state.

He and Carney said they planned to revive a proposal to pursue low-interest federal loans as a way to help pay for the state's transportation needs — an idea that both Lamont and Democrats have indicated support for in the past.

j.bergman@theday.com

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