March 11, 2019
Government Insights

Gov. Lamont's honeymoon period is over

Roy Occhiogrosso

Well, that was fast.

Gov. Ned Lamont, who was sworn into office Jan. 7, has had a rough few weeks. It sure seems as if the honeymoon's over, which is probably a good thing, because it means he's doing the job that needs to be done.

Lamont's honeymoon period was nearing its end before his first month in office was complete, with an idea being floated — apparently by the Lamont administration — that maybe it was time to talk about extending the sales tax to groceries, albeit at a rate of 2 percent, which is well below the statewide sales tax rate of 6.35 percent.

Reaction to that trial balloon was immediate and intense, and not in good ways. My thought at the time was, while I don't support the idea of taxing groceries, I do support examining all the many sales-tax exemptions that exist to understand A.) why they exist, and B.) if they should continue to exist.

Some of the exemptions we tolerate are absurd. Back in his first budget speech in early 2011, former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who also undertook the task of looking at these exemptions, noted that the state taxed yoga but not pilates. He asked if one was a more pure form of exercise, or if the yoga people had a better lobbyist than the pilates people. Everyone in the chamber laughed, but he got his point across: Oftentimes there's no rhyme or reason to how we tax certain goods and services.

While Lamont took a lot of heat for the grocery tax idea, it did in fact prompt a discussion about the issue of sales-tax exemptions, which he then revisited when he presented his budget Feb. 20, by proposing to eliminate a bunch of exemptions.

Then came the tolls issue, rolled out by the administration the weekend before Lamont's budget speech. Again, the reaction was swift and intense, and again, not in good ways. Although the main criticisms revolved around the way the administration rolled out the issue (in an op-ed, posted online in Hearst papers early on a Saturday morning), and whether or not Lamont was breaking a campaign promise, it did prompt a multi-day discussion about tolls. And then in his budget speech Lamont presented two options for tolls: the trucks-only one he talked about during the campaign, and a more comprehensive one to toll trucks and cars (but with a hefty discount for Connecticut drivers).

As with a tax on groceries and a proposal to institute tolling, almost no one was happy with Lamont's overall budget proposal. Republicans said it taxes and tolls too much, many Democrats said it doesn't tax the wealthy enough, and many local elected officials hated the proposal that would have municipalities begin contributing to the teacher pension system. Labor doesn't like it because they're again being asked for concessions. I could go on and on, but you get the point. Literally, I don't remember hearing one positive comment about the budget, except maybe from craft breweries, which were offered a tax break.

What does all this unhappiness mean? It probably means Lamont is doing his job as best it can be done.

Connecticut has a lot of problems that need to be fixed, chief among them the ridiculously underfunded public employee pension systems, and our crumbling infrastructure. Both of those issues will require billions and billions of dollars to fix.

To the people screaming the loudest, here's a question: Where do you think the money should come from? You scream when a governor proposes a tax increase (on anyone, for anything) and you scream when he proposes to cut spending (for anything).

Lamont has been saying since he became governor, in effect, "If you have a better idea, I'm all ears."

So, to the people screaming the loudest, here's a suggestion: Take Lamont up on his offer. Put your ideas on the table.

Or, stop screaming.

Roy Occhiogrosso is the managing director of Global Strategy Group in Hartford, a public relations and research firm. He also served as a senior advisor to former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

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