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May 3, 2019

Lamont ends tumultuous week as session heats up Tuesday

HBJ Photo | Matt Pilon Gov. Ned Lamont at a MetroHartford Alliance event.

The administration of Gov. Ned Lamont was ready to put a tumultuous week behind it Thursday night, downplaying a pointed rebuke by a legislative committee the previous day and looking forward to votes on substantive issues next week by the General Assembly.

The pace of the legislative session will quicken next week, when the House and Senate are scheduled to debate and vote on bills Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. A measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 over four years is among the bills likely to come up.

Ryan Drajewicz, the governor’s chief of staff, struck a conciliatory tone in talking about the administration’s fight over taxes and borrowing with the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee and its co-chair, Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford.

The committee voted 46-4 on Wednesday for Fonfara’s proposal to give control of borrowing to the legislature, a signal of lawmakers’ willingness to fight Lamont over the governor’s insistence that the state’s annual borrowing of $2 billion be cut by $700 million.

“I think that when you get into negotiations as critical as the ones that are confronting the state, there’s always going to be disagreements,” Drajewicz said. “I think that’s natural. I think that’s expected. And I think that’s necessary.”

Drajewicz said the administration’s setbacks in the finance committee were evidence of “growing pains” by an administration that took office four months ago and a reminder “that relationships matter” at the State Capitol.

Fonfara, who was first elected to the General Assembly in 1986 on a ticket led by Gov. William A. O’Neill. was less sanguine about the state of the evolving relationship between a Democratic governor from the world of business and a legislature controlled by Democrats.

“With some exceptions, there’s not much understanding of the legislative process by this administration, even as we’re heading to the finish line,” Fonfara said. “I haven’t seen a lot changing that, and frankly I don’t think — this is my observation — there’s a lot of respect there for the legislature.”

Drajewicz said the administration recognizes the need to augment its legislative liaison operation by bringing in Jonathan Harris, a former state senator who now serves as an undersecretary of policy and management.

The session ends at midnight on June 5, and there are only 19 session days scheduled before the constitutional adjournment deadline. Fonfara is expected to be among the leaders and committee co-chairs to begin meetings next week with the administration.

Fonfara is hardly the only political actor causing problems for Lamont. Progressive lawmakers have bucked the governor, successfully pushing the finance committee to approve a surcharge on capital gains taxes paid by single taxpayers with incomes of $500,000 and couples with $1 million.

Lamont is opposed to raising the income tax, but he has not yet publicly indicated if he would veto a tax package with a capital gains increase.

“Yet again we are seeing the governor get pushed around by members of his own party,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven. “Is he going to take a stand on anything, or is he going to continue operating in fear of Democratic legislators?”

While Fonfara faults Lamont for unilaterally curtailing borrowing, even for projects already approved by the legislature, he agrees with Fasano that Lamont is inviting trouble by sending “mixed signals” on his revenue proposals, thus creating a political vacuum.

“We’re going to fill a vacuum,” Fonfara said of legislators.

Sen. Gary A. Winfield, D-New Haven, said legislators see an administration that is a work in progress after four months in office, a condition that is disconcerting to some Democrats, but still understandable.

“Year one is very difficult,” Winfield said. “The learning curve is humongous.”

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said the administration cannot be judged on how its budget proposals fared in the committees.

“You can’t really judge a negotiating style based upon the committees,” Ritter said. “The question now is what will be the final product?”

Those talks are expected to begin in earnest next week.

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