During a political campaign it is easy to make policy promises based on what you think you know or what you think should be possible with competent management. When winning candidates take office, as elected officials, they are often forced to change their views once they have all the facts. Ned Lamont, the first term Democratic governor of Connecticut, has learned this lesson during his first two months in office.
His budget proposal to the legislature argues for new taxes in the form of tolls on Connecticut highways and the expansion of the sales tax. He has embraced the idea of legalizing marijuana, mainly as a way to increase revenue to the state. He has pledged to curtail state borrowing and he is asking state employee labor unions to consider givebacks. All these proposals are made in an effort to balance the state budget, improve the business climate, and put the state on a sustainable financial path.
During the month of February, I was granted exclusive behind the scenes access to the Lamont administration, as the governor and his team struggled to understand the challenges facing the state and develop a plan to meet those challenges consistent with his campaign promises.
The ground rules for this project meant anything said in my presence was strictly off the record. However, close observation of Lamont and his team - when combined with his public statements and conversations with knowledgable sources inside and outside of the administration - reveal a governor determined to fundamentally alter how the state is managed. To make this change Lamont intends to rely primarily on goodwill and a willingness to compromise rather than the brute force available to any sitting governor.
Perhaps with the confidence of a man who does not need the job to pay his bills (he has chosen to serve without taking a salary), Lamont seems very willing to take risks previous governors have refused.
Most notably, his proposal to install tolls on Connecticut highways as a way to fund and upgrade the state's decaying transportation system. Tolls were removed from Connecticut highways in the 1980's over safety concerns, but have remained off the table ever since because they are seen from a political perspective as a major new tax.
From a purely pragmatic point of view, most Connecticut government insiders have long believed the only way to properly pay for the state's transportation needs is through the implementation of tolls. Lamont is the first governor to forcefully make the argument.
Lamont naturally seeks to avoid confrontation. He is more than willing to express his strong feelings about how a problem should be solved, but he is equally willing to listen to alternatives. During his budget address to lawmakers in mid-February, he urged them to come directly to him with their concerns, to work with him to find common ground, and to view his budget proposal as a starting point for a serious discussion.
His only priority: "...the numbers have to add up at the end of the day."
This approach sounds refreshing in today's political climate, but carries with it considerable risk for any elected chief executive, because it may be seen as a signal to political adversaries that the governor is not willing to fight for what he says he believes in. In recent years Connecticut lawmakers have shown a willingness to cut the governor out of the budget process.
As the governor delivered his budget address on the afternoon of February 20, the typical crowd of lobbyists, all representing clients with a special stake in how the state spends its money, gathered around television monitors in the halls of the Capitol to listen to his remarks and plan their counter-attacks.
Cities and towns said they didn't like the governor's plans to emphasize cost sharing. Conservative groups came out against tolls and sales tax expansion. Unions came out against concessions. Republicans in the legislature, said whatever happens next is up to Lamont and his fellow Democrats. They did so because they expect whatever happens next to be politically painful.
It should also be noted that nearly every critic of a specific spending cut or tax increase also praised the governor for his honesty and his sincere effort to address very difficult issues. Other than protecting their own part of the budget pie, few offered alternatives - a sign that they understand Lamont faces a series of challenges with no easy answers.
© Dean Pagani 2019