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Lamont signals change of stance on funding watchdog agency

New London — Gov. Ned Lamont said Tuesday he would be open to additional funding for the state Contracting Standards Board.

In a meeting with The Day editorial board Tuesday afternoon, Lamont discussed the board, State Pier, the legislative session, his gubernatorial campaign and other subjects. His visit to New London included a tour of State Pier, which is being redeveloped into a hub for the offshore wind industry, before he made his way to The Day’s building.

The Democratic governor said he has mostly reversed course on his initial funding plan for the watchdog agency, which provides oversight of contracts the state enters into. The board recently criticized the past procurement activities of the Connecticut Port Authority, which is in charge of the State Pier project, following an investigation.

“I think we’ll probably make a change,” Lamont said of his original proposal for the board. “I didn’t appreciate everyone saying ‘Lamont is cutting the state Contracting Standards Board.’ I funded it the same way all my predecessors have funded it. In addition to that, we added on three additional auditors.”

A federal grand jury issued a subpoena in October 2021 for documents, from January 2018 to the present, associated with Konstantinos Diamantis, concerning "the planning, bidding, awarding, and implementation" of school construction and hazardous materials abatement projects, and the State Pier project in New London. Diamantis was formerly the deputy secretary of the Office of Policy and Management and head of the Office of School Construction Grants and Review.

Lamont's recent budget proposal allocated $218,770 to the Auditors of Public Accounts for three additional auditors, instead of the additional $467,055 needed to fully staff the Contracting Standards Board. The board, in addition to an executive director and intern, is seeking to fund five more positions: a chief procurement officer, staff attorney, accounts examiner, research analyst and trainer. While the state legislature approved extra funding for the new staff positions last year, those funds for 2022 and 2023 later were rescinded.

Region legislators, including state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and state Reps. Christine Conley, D-Groton, and Anthony Nolan, D-New London, have introduced legislation to move the board out from under Executive Branch control and into the control of the Legislative Branch with its powers intact. State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, is proposing a similar bill.

Lamont heard the dissatisfaction and is electing not to engage in a fight with legislators on the issue. “I’ve got to figure it out,” he said. He ultimately said he wouldn’t “stand in the way” of legislation fully funding the board.

“That’s where the momentum is right now, and it gives people the confidence of yet another set of eyes,” he added.

Lamont lamented what he called “antipathy” to public–private partnerships in the state. He said he’s spent his tenure trying to change this prevailing attitude. He noted that “half the guys on the board” think “privatization equals corruption.”

“That’s the world they come from, often labor,” he added.

Paul Mounds, Lamont’s chief of staff, told The Day that the legislative commissioner’s office has told legislators that if the board is moved out from under the Executive Branch’s control and into the legislature’s, it would lose certain statutory functions. Mounds also said the original proposal was meant to make it so that state agencies weren’t duplicating functions such as procurement.

As for whether Lamont would support moving the board to the legislative side — “Only if I had to. I’ve got 157 legislators, and each one has their own agenda.”

COVID-19

Lamont commented on the recent rise of a new coronavirus variant, BA.2, and said that while most of the state is fully vaccinated, he’s working with his COVID-19 team again in preparation for any possible wave or uptick in cases.

“I think we’re well positioned depending on the nature of what this new variant is," he said. "I worry more about October than I do June or April.”

Still, the governor acknowledged that most people are ready to move into a post-COVID world, and, “I think it’s tough to turn back the clock now.” He said the state’s residents can be fickle, referencing a shortage of tests and an explosion in demand for them in December, and then, six weeks later, people were asking to “‘get rid of these damn masks. How dare you ask me to wear it another three weeks?’ I think we responded,” Lamont said.

Just as the legislature has emphasized this session, Lamont is supportive of legislation that will tackle mental health care for children and mental health care access in general. When asked about behavioral issues in schools, he spoke about how the pandemic has delayed children’s social development and said the state needs to help those children catch up.

Community college consolidation

The governor commented on the consolidation process for the state’s community colleges on Tuesday, saying he is generally supportive of the controversial move.

“I think they’re trying to do the right thing. We can save an awful lot of overhead if you consolidate purchasing, IT, and still allow community colleges to maintain their individual identity,” Lamont said, adding that people will be able to move and take classes between different campuses easier as a result of the consolidation.

The consolidation process is designed to bring all 12 of the state's community colleges under one centralized administration, called the Connecticut State Community College, through the CSCU's Board of Regents and its accrediting body, the New England Commission of Higher Education. Detractors, including a large contingent of community college professors, have said they believe the consolidation is robbing campuses like Three Rivers Community College in Norwich of needed, on-the-ground resources in favor of a bloated and too-powerful administration, all while the administration says the move will cut costs.

Mounds said community colleges are essential to the state’s workforce development goals, which have become a focus of Lamont’s administration.

“One of the most consequential things we did in our budget was raise up the importance of workforce development,” Mounds said, noting that the administration “took it out of the basement” of the Department of Labor. Now it’s in the governor’s office with its own agency and “a very professional board.”

Lamont said that he’s “never before in his life” seen the situation Connecticut is in now, with “too many jobs and not enough people looking for them.”

Gas tax

Lamont confirmed Tuesday that the legislature would be voting on a bipartisan basis Wednesday to eliminate the state’s 25-cent excise tax on gas. He noted the state’s surplus will cover the cost and said he wants to make sure the action is bipartisan.

The governor said he also expects the legislature to eliminate the sales tax on clothes for one week in April and provide free CT transit bus service for a month. Eliminating the gas tax will cost the state around $90 million through July 1. With the bus service and sales tax proposals, that number goes up to about $100 million.

Cannabis

Lamont said he still expects recreational cannabis dispensaries to be selling marijuana before the end of the year.

“You saw what we did on the gaming agreement and how aggressive we were to keep that up,” Mounds said. “We’re still headed for quarter four of this year.”

Mounds and Lamont praised the Social Equity Council for its quick work in getting together and pointed out that people can already begin to apply for cannabis licenses. The 15-person council of state officials and social justice and civil rights professionals is meant to "oversee the verification of equity applicants, create new programs to support cannabis businesses and businesses in other industries, and manage the more general community investments derived from the cannabis tax revenue," according to the state's recreational cannabis webpage.

Campaign

While Lamont has mostly sought to avoid conversations about his current gubernatorial race against repeat Republican challenger Bob Stefanowski, he took a moment to recognize the advantages of incumbency on Tuesday.

“I think people know me. Last time I would do these debates and he’d say, ‘Ned Malloy is going to raise your taxes,’ and everyone would boo,” Lamont said. “People have a good idea of who I am on fiscal issues and wherever else may be important.”

The governor said he is trying to get through this legislative session without worrying too much about the campaign, but conceded that the race is “heating up.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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