HARTFORD, CT – Gov. Ned Lamont told the General Assembly Wednesday that Connecticut has a lot of reasons to be optimistic.
“No more badmouthing the great state of Connecticut,” Lamont said. “The rest of the country is looking at our state in a new light, and so should its leaders. Optimism can be contagious. No more rose-colored glasses.”
Lamont offered up shorter wait times at the state Department of Motor Vehicles, a recent legal settlement with the Connecticut Hospital Association, more federal funds to help families afford quality childcare, and minority teacher recruitment as successes the state has had over the past year.
“Rating agencies and investors have upgraded their outlook for Connecticut for the first time in 18 years, from neutral to positive – saving the state and its taxpayers tens of millions in borrowing costs,” Lamont said. “Economic growth picked up last year. That means businesses and young families are now giving Connecticut a second look.”
He said when he took office a year ago it wasn’t just Democrats and Republicans who were not talking to each other, “it was that state government that was not connecting with business leaders, labor leaders, educators and the hospitals – we had a failure to communicate.”
Lamont, who ran a college cable television company for decades before running for governor, went on to tout hiring at Electric Boat, WWE, breweries, and a Guilford company waiting on FDA approval to turn a smartphone into a professional-grade ultrasound imaging device.
He also praised the University of Connecticut’s decision to eliminate tuition for all students and families earning less than $50,000 a year. He also said community college will be debt-free for recent high school grads.
Under Lamont’s debt-free community college proposal, students from low- or middle-income families will receive tuition assistance not covered by Pell grants or other aid and students whose tuition is fully covered will receive $250 per semester.
“Reducing the cost of education is just one way we are trying to make Connecticut more affordable for middle-class families,” Lamont said.
Lamont includes $4.6 million in his $22.3 billion budget to fund the debt-free college initiative and a mentoring program called Guided Pathways.
Lamont also said he wants to work with the General Assembly on legalizing sports betting.
“I want to work with you to ensure we stand up a responsible sports betting platform that promotes economic growth for our state and is fair to our tribal partners,” Lamont said.
He said he wants to do this “while also avoiding endless litigation.”
The budget increases spending 0.6% and includes no broad-based tax increases, but it extends the corporation tax surcharge.
The proposed budget adjustment unveiled Wednesday morning includes a 50% tax increase on e-cigarette products to discourage vaping, and includes $5 million in revenue the state expects to get from beginning to charge a fee on credit card transactions.
The budget also nixes $50 million in various fee increases included in last year’s budget.
Office of Policy and Management Melissa McCaw said “the $50 million in fee increases would be harmful to the middle class.”
Lamont’s budget also includes $8.8 million to fund two state police trooper classes through the police academy to help deal with existing staff shortages and expected retirements. And it calls for a $2 million appropriation to support the technology needed to institute a “clean slate” program that would allow those convicted of certain misdemeanor crimes to have their records erased after a period of time.
Democratic lawmakers praised Lamont’s speech, while Republicans largely panned it.
“It was an excellent speech, it set the right tone for the first day of the session,” said Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven. “It was optimistic, it was confident.”
The speech set the tone to bring recreational cannabis back into play, after the issue was dropped last year, Looney said. The push to legalize sales under strict regulation failed to get off the ground during the 2019 legislative session.
“I hope we can move as quickly on that as we can,” Looney said.
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said Lamont’s speech and budget adjustments include a “lot of broken promises.”
“I think there are things he promised he was going to do the second year that he hasn’t done,” Fasano said.
Fasano was referring to the property tax credit.
On the campaign trail in 2018, Lamont said he wanted to increase the property tax credit for middle class homeowners to $300. The credit is currently $200 for individuals over the age of 65 or families with dependents. Individuals without kids who own a home currently don’t qualify for the credit.
Under Lamont’s campaign proposal, individuals with incomes up to $138,500 and married couples earning up to $160,500 would be able to qualify for the credit, which would increase the revenue loss to the state by $165 million a year.
Fasano said it’s because the Democrats did a budget with phony numbers and they are realizing they can’t offer the relief they had planned “because they didn’t do an honest budget in the first place.”
What’s worse is “he doesn’t want anyone to be critical of the bad policies they put forward,” Fasano added.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said Lamont is being overly optimistic.
She said his point about “stop beating up on Connecticut was clearly directed at us.”
She said she tells every group she speaks with: “I am going to be honest with you about where we are and then I’m going to tell you how I think we can fix it.”
She said a “profile in courage” is about “being honest with people about where we are and how we fix it.”