It’s not easy being a brand new governor, it’s very much a sink-or-swim situation. Gov. Ned Lamont looked like he was drowning during the first months of his term, but now I’m happy to report that he seems to have crawled up on dry land after all.
The start of the year was not kind to Gov. Lamont thanks to two major missteps: the botched rollout of auto tolling on the highways and his budget that everyone except the rich found something to hate in.
Lamont originally promised during the campaign that tolls would only be for trucks, but only a few weeks after he squeaked out a win the state Department of Transportation released a study on tolls that proposed toll gantries on just about every mile of every single expressway in the state, plus a handy cost calculator that we could use to figure out how much more our commutes were going to cost.
Naturally, we lost our minds.
So poor Ned Lamont comes into office with this study and the prospect of toll gantries in everyone’s driveway already hung around his neck. The online grouch squad had already substituted his name in for Dan Malloy’s in their rants about how awful Connecticut is, so Lamont had basically zero honeymoon.
That meant that reversing his position on truck-only tolls, which was grimly necessary, would require a delicate touch and a full court media press promoting the governor’s new position as the only way forward. But Gov. Lamont instead dropped an op-ed on a Saturday explaining himself and then all but ceded the field to angry toll haters for a crucial few days.
Lamont seemed caught off guard by how intense the negative reaction was. It took him weeks to start to find his footing on the issue, by which time it was too late. The damage had been done.
Lamont’s original budget proposal also included a whole list of politically devastating tax increases — or, more specifically, the end to certain exemptions to the state sales tax. An early trial balloon had suggested removing the exemption on groceries, and the finished plan would have taxed online downloads, veterinary services, accounting and legal services, boat storage, sugary beverages, and a whole lot more.
Avery Soda in New Britain responded by creating a new soda called “Don’t Tax Me Ned!,” if you want an indication of how well all of this went over.
But after hitting bottom in February things began to get better for the governor. When it came to actual legislating and negotiating, Lamont turned out to be better than expected. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was notoriously prickly and it seemed like he was at odds with the leaders of his own party in the legislature more often than not. Lamont, on the other hand, brought a more open and collegial style to the Capitol, and Democratic lawmakers responded by heaping praise on the governor at the end of the session.
And, despite everything, it was a productive session. The minimum wage was increased, paid family and medical leave passed, and best of all the budget was finished on time. Lamont was able to avoid increasing taxes on the rich, which progressives wanted, while eliminating miseries like the business entity tax. Lamont wanted to be a pro-business governor who did his best to keep the wealthy in the state, and it seems to have worked up to a point.
Lamont also scored with his party’s liberal base by swiftly condemning draconian abortion laws passed in Alabama and Georgia and reaching out to Disney, Netflix, and AMC to leaved those states to come film in Connecticut instead. This is a smart angle. We may not be the cheapest place to do business, but companies can live their values here.
Gov. Lamont did not get the legislature to act on tolls, unfortunately. His leadership will be tested again when a special session on tolls comes around later in the summer. For now, though, the governor seems to finally be finding his groove after a disastrous beginning.
A C for the gentleman, with hope to pull that up to a B or better by the end of the year if all goes well.
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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