Welcome, Ned Lamont, to Dan Malloy’s life. Well, not his current life, he’s doing some kind of cool visiting professorship deal up in Boston, but the life he led from 2011 to a little over a month ago in which he was forced to make endless miserable budget decisions and, as a reward, be the least popular governor in the entire country.
That is now you. Congrats, I guess.
Gov. Lamont’s budget speech last week went over about as well as could be expected, given the circumstances and the content. The governor’s budget plan contained something for just about everyone to hate. Progressives are up in arms because the budget doesn’t increase taxes on the rich at all and sticks it to labor, while state employee unions are furious about yet another round of proposed givebacks after Lamont said he’d find win-win solutions during the campaign. Conservatives are groaning about any sort of tax increase, and cities and towns are bracing for hoped-for projects dying on the vine thanks to the governor’s self-imposed restrictions on new bond issues.
You know who else’s now angry at Gov. Lamont? Cat rescue people. These are some of the kindest and most giving people I know, but they’re in shock that veterinary services could no longer be exempt from sales tax by 2020. Shelters and rescues never have enough money, and so to make taking animals to the vet more expensive seems like needless cruelty to them.
I don’t blame them at all. We just adopted two new cats, which brings our total to five. That pushes us over the line from simple feline enthusiasts to That House With All the Cats, and let me tell you, I’m not looking forward to the increase in our vet bills either. Thanks, Ned.
But what people are most angry about are, of course, the tolls. Gov. Lamont didn’t help himself by waffling about tolls during the campaign, saying he’d only consider tolling out-of-state trucks. He reversed himself once in office, and is now proposing tolls for all passenger cars. It was a real stretch to think the trucks-only tolls would ever bring in enough money, even if they turned out to be legal (Rhode Island is in court over theirs), and that’s exactly what the governor says he discovered after taking office. Convenient.
I give Ned Lamont credit. He actually is doing the right thing on tolls instead of the popular thing, and it’s going to cost him. That’s very much a Dan Malloy move.
The governor is clearly, painfully aware that he has very few good choices to make here that wouldn’t lead to some kind of disaster. He could try to cut his way out of this mess, but that would only go so far. State employees have a no-layoff clause in their contract, negotiated by Malloy, that’s in effect until 2022, and a lot of the easier cuts were made long ago. Opening up the benefits package for state employees to find savings would be far more popular than tolls, but it would make the state vulnerable to a protracted, expensive legal battle that would more likely than not end up in failure.
The other Dan Malloy move, unfortunately, is being absolutely inept at getting any kind of public support for his initiatives. A tone-deaf trial balloon about removing the sales tax exemption on groceries landed like a live grenade, as did the governor’s op-ed about imposing tolls. Lamont is offering little besides the promise of a better transportation to a public weary of endless fiscal crisis.
Tolls were never going to be popular, but tying them to a few very specific projects might have helped. Tolls along I-95 could help pay for that road’s modernization, or for upgrades on Metro North and Shore Line East. Tolls in the Hartford area could be tied to the I-84 viaduct reconstruction and Hartford Line stations. Right now, the tolls are open-ended and general, which is good for the state’s cash flow but bad for public perception. In short, people see it as just one more headache instead of an investment in something specific.
The governor seems to realize this, and he’s been traveling around the state highlighting different projects and problem spots that tolling would help pay for. I worry that it may be too late. Massive public pressure and jittery legislators might end up killing tolls — and any hope for a better transportation future.
If nothing else, I hope Gov. Lamont is learning some valuable lessons from this mess. I just wish he’d learned them sooner.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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