After watching Ned Lamont perform as governor for the past 18 months, I remain struck by the contrast with his predecessor, the self-styled porcupine, Dannel Malloy.
There is the obvious difference in personality. Both are reliably liberal Democrats, but whereas Malloy could be abrasive and arrogant, Lamont is genial, approachable and a politician you could actually imagine having a proverbial beer with.
But the difference goes way beyond personality. Lamont’s background as a businessman appears to affect his policy decisions. The most recent example is his reluctance to support the extension of the federal government’s $600-per-week “true-up” unemployment benefit in favor of a one-time $450 “return-to-work bonus” supported by U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
That’s right. A liberal Democrat supports lower benefits for unemployed workers during a pandemic. Why? Perhaps because a recent analysis by the University of Chicago found that two-thirds of benefits-eligible U.S. workers were taking home more in unemployment than they would if they had been working. Fully one-fifth of those workers were making at least double.
“I think sometimes it discourages work,” Lamont told the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce. “I would put off this extra $600 true-up they’re talking about. I don’t think we need that.”
Like most people in business and too few in government, Lamont understands markets and incentives, having founded and successfully run Campus Televideo, a company that provides cable and satellite services to college campuses across the U.S.
Lamont’s opinion on the true-up benefit runs contrary to the views of most congressional Democrats, including Rep. Rosa DeLauro of New Haven, who described the generous benefits as “vital for workers and families” and insisted that the extra money for the unemployed will help “spur an economic recovery.”
Not surprisingly, Republicans reacted with glee. Texas Republican Kevin Brady, ranking member of the powerful House Ways and Mean Committee, put up a blog post headlined: “Democrat Governor Warns Extending Unemployment Benefits Will ‘Discourage Work.’”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board, which loves to pick on our fair state, penned an editorial entitled, “Ned Lamont Says The Unspeakable.” The unsigned piece opined that “Lamont is a progressive in good standing, but he’d better watch out if he keeps speaking economic truths that don’t fit with national Democratic Party orthodoxy.”
While I agree with Lamont’s position on extending unemployment benefits that exceed wages, some of the other moves he has made owing to his business background have been less than stellar. The disastrous educational partnership with hedge fund king Ray Dalio comes to mind. And he made a series of mistakes early in his term that could have been avoided if the businessman had been more politically savvy.
Nevertheless, as someone who casts himself as “nontribal,” I delight in seeing politicians occasionally straying from party orthodoxy, sometimes at great risk to their careers.
Of Lamont’s view on unemployment benefits, the Journal warned, “Better hire a food taster, Governor. That position is contrary to the universal view among Democrats in Washington.”
During a tour earlier this month of the Jonathan Edwards Winery in North Stonington, the eponymous owner told the governor he would love to see his product also sold in grocery stores. Lamont replied, “It’s something I’m open to.” It seems that only in Connecticut would such common sense be considered controversial.
As I have written before, Connecticut has the most oppressive and anti-competitive laws governing the sale and distribution of alcohol in the country. It punishes the consumer in the name of protecting an entire class of retailers – mostly mom-and-pop package store owners – from meaningful competition. Legislative attempts to move toward a free market have thus far proved largely symbolic.
Brace yourself so that you don’t fall off your chair. When asked by the Hartford Courant about Lamont’s openness, lobbyist Carroll Hughes, who represents the state’s liquor stores, actually replied that allowing grocery stores to sell wine would hurt Connecticut vineyards.
You see, package store owners and clerks are much more knowledgeable about wines than grocery store workers. Many package stores also have special sections for Connecticut products.
Since that level of service is unlikely in a grocery store, Connecticut’s wineries could wind up selling less of their product than if sales were restricted only to the 350 locally-owned retailers represented by the Connecticut Package Stores Association. As is the case with many lobbyists, Hughes’ logic is so tortured and transparently hidebound that you have to chuckle.
I say to Lamont, please pursue this. Your predecessor tried to reform the liquor industry in this state and didn’t get much farther than Sunday sales. If a businessman can’t get it done, we’re all screwed.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or .
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