In a Wednesday speech to the legislature, Gov. Ned Lamont painted an upbeat picture of Connecticut where flush coffers would support tax cuts and the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to slide into the rearview mirror.
Lamont stood at the dais in the House Chambers to deliver an in-person state of the state address for the first time in two years. Last year’s speech was pre-recorded and most legislators viewed it from their offices.
In many ways, the speech seemed designed to cast the narrative of the governor’s first term as voters prepare to consider his re-election in November. The last three years saw Connecticut’s fiscal health improve and also thrust Lamont into steering the state through the uncharted waters of a global pandemic. Lamont focused often on financial improvements, telling the chamber he was “hell-bent” on avoiding the bad habits of past decades.
“Three years ago, we were standing at the edge of a fiscal cliff, facing a $3.7 billion budget deficit, and today we are deciding what taxes to cut or school programs to grow, thanks to our third consecutive year of budget surpluses,” Lamont said.
Lamont’s budget director, Melissa McCaw, was scheduled to release the details of his budget recommendations early Wednesday afternoon but the governor had already signaled he would seek more than $300 million in tax cuts, including reducing the mill rate for property taxes on motor vehicles to 29 mills.
The governor spent less time on the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, often focusing instead on its residual impact on things like essential workers, young people in the criminal justice system, as well as teachers and students.
During his remarks, Lamont touched on juvenile crime, an issue likely to be raised during Republican campaigns. The governor said he would seek to invest funds in training more police officers, but said the issue could also be addressed by judicial funding and more programming for young people suffering from the lingering impacts of the pandemic.
“Many of the car thefts and other street crimes are a symptom of a population reeling after two years of Covid-hell,” Lamont said. “Free summer learning camps and clinics, and in-person schools relieved some of the stress for a lot of kids.”
While Lamont addressed lawmakers, a group of parents opposed to mask requirements in schools could be heard shouting and chanting outside the state Capitol building. The governor had recently signaled his intent to effectively shift the decision on whether to mask students to local boards of education. Lawmakers in the House were expected to vote on the issue the following day. Lamont touched on the issue only briefly in his remarks.
“Before [lawmakers weigh in], I think you know I’ve been working with my neighboring governors, and I believe it’s time to end the statewide school mask mandate and enable each and every board of education to decide what is best for their schools,” Lamont said. “From a public health perspective, you have earned this freedom and I believe you can do that safely.”
The comments were met with a muted response from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Neither side seemed completely on board with the plan, which would effectively see the statewide requirement lifted at the end of February, leaving local officials with the option of enacting their own mandates. The policy allows the commissioner of education to revive the mandate if it is deemed necessary.
The Democratic leaders of both legislative chambers said they would feel more comfortable if a statewide mandate remained in place, but expected to have the votes to pass the policy over the next few days.
“In this chamber you’ve got people who think it should go on longer and you have people who want it off tomorrow,” House Speaker Matt Ritter told reporters afterward. “It’s the ultimate compromise where nobody is happy.”
House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said Republicans did not want executive branch commissioners to retain the ability to reinstitute a masking requirement.
“We don’t believe masks should continue, we don’t want to give the commissioner that authority,” Candelora said.
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly called any shift to local decision-making “better from a policy perspective.” But Kelly said he would have liked to hear Lamont propose relief for nursing homes. “Let’s be frank, seniors have paid the highest price for the scourge of COVID,” Kelly said.
Several onlookers commented on the optimism reflected in the governor’s comments, including his 2018 Republican opponent Bob Stefanowski, the frontrunner for his party’s nomination to run against Lamont this year. Stefanowski drifted up to the second floor of the state Capitol building after Lamont’s remarks. He told reporters the governor seemed “a nice enough person,” but questioned his optimism.
“Optimism is terrific but I really think he’s lost touch with what the people of Connecticut are going through,” Stefanowski said. “They’re struggling with affordability, they’ve got crime that’s out of control. They’re struggling to fill up their gas tank and I didn’t see a lot of empathy.”
As they have in the past, Democratic leaders said the state’s crime statistics do not support claims that crime in Connecticut was out of control.
However, Senate President Martin Looney said he remained worried about the ongoing threat the COVID-19 virus posed to Connecticut.
“I’m still very wary, very concerned and don’t believe by any means we are out of the woods yet,” Looney told reporters after the address. Did that concern seem reflected in the governor’s remarks? “I think the governor is by nature an optimistic person,” Looney said.