Q&A talks to James Amann, former Democratic House Speaker of the General Assembly and co-founder and managing partner of International Government Strategies LLC (IGS), a Milford-based lobbying firm.
Q: IGS recently acquired another small lobbying firm, Marshall R. Collins & Associates, and hired another lobbyist (Michael Rell, who happens to be the son of former Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell). Why did you make this deal, and as a well-known Democrat and former House Speaker, why add a Republican to your team?
A: Relationships are the gold standard in our business. I've known Marshall Collins since the 1990's, when we worked together on issues of mutual interest via the Milford Chamber of Commerce while I was a state representative. Marshall is fair, hard working, professional and an excellent, straight-shooting advocate for his clients. When Marshall approached me about a potential merger, it was easy to find reasons to make it happen. He's the type of guy you look forward to having on your side.
I can say the same thing about Mike Rell, who comes from extremely good stock and brings two decades of legislative and political success to International Government Strategies. Mike's mother, former Gov. Jodi Rell, and I had some well-publicized differences of opinion while I was House Speaker, yet the truth is she and I had an outstanding working relationship and deep respect for one another that continues to this day.
Overall, I think this year's state elections showed an increasing appetite in Connecticut for shared governing; the relationships that Marshall, Mike, and I have forged on both sides of the political aisle will give us unparalleled opportunities to represent the interests of our growing client base.
Q: You're no stranger to budget battles. How do you see Gov. Malloy and state lawmakers tackling the billion-dollar deficits forecasted for the next two years? Are further tax increases inevitable? What advice would you give to the legislature?
A: I don't envy the job of the Governor and state lawmakers in the upcoming biennium with deficits of up to $1.5 billion looming like a dark storm cloud overhead — a forecast that has been remarkably consistent for almost five years now. During my time as House Speaker, we were fortunate to have a streak of surpluses that provided the opportunity to make some needed investments in our state. As a leader, my philosophy was to empower committee chairs and to seek middle ground between all four legislative caucuses — and the governor — in tackling the biggest problems and budget priorities.
My specific advice (while it may seem counterintuitive from a budget-balancing perspective): I would strive to keep business taxes and regulatory relief at the center of recovery efforts. Small businesses, especially, are the engine of Connecticut's economy. Connecticut should shed as many of the nickel-and-dime, nuisance taxes and fees as possible, which will unleash more development, investment, startups and hiring. The state is right to focus on maintaining our competitive advantages over places like New York and Massachusetts, but we also shouldn't shut our eyes to what's working across our borders. There are valuable lessons and practices to be leveraged.
Q: Besides the budget, what are some other major issues that will gain attention this year? What about issues that will impact businesses?
A: Like it or not, the budget will continue to suck most of the oxygen from legislative hearing rooms and both chambers. The recent court decision that calls for more equal education opportunities across Connecticut ensures that education will be a point of focus this year.
Personally, I hope the role of our vocational-technical schools as a talent pipeline continues to be supported. Though overshadowed recently by our presidential election, I believe issues that brought Bernie Sanders to the national consciousness — especially the minimum wage — will re-emerge as a flash point between caucuses. As it always does, the debate will come down to balancing competing calls: Does a higher wage mean the business owner who could hire 25 employees will stay put at 20 employees to remain competitive and profitable?
In the case of economic development, Malloy has been right to aggressively invest in sectors fundamental to Connecticut's DNA, like aerospace and insurance. Connecticut's digital media tax incentives — which have generated about $2 billion in associated activity — and our biotechnology sector are other potential growth areas that merit additional investment.
This will be a fascinating year, as most legislative sessions prove to be. I think it's a big reason why so many of us who start out in government find a reason to stay involved in this game; there's nothing quite like it.