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December 21, 2018 5 TO WATCH IN 2019

Lamont's big tasks: Shifting perceptions, tackling structural deficit

HBJ Photos | Steve Laschever Gov.-elect Ned Lamont

Each year Hartford Business Journal spotlights five leaders who we predict will make headlines in the year ahead. Here is a look at our choices.

For an annual special feature that profiles Connecticut leaders with major tasks ahead of them in the coming year, there's no easier choice than the man almost certain to be the most closely watched person in the state.

Gov.-elect Ned Lamont emerged victorious in the Nov. 6 gubernatorial election, and on Jan. 9 will be inaugurated as Connecticut's first new governor since 2011.

His win is reflective of the “third-time's-a-charm” adage. Lamont began seeking political office in 2006, running unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate (though he turned heads by initially beating incumbent Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary) and for governor in 2010, when he was primaried and defeated by fellow Democrat and then Stamford Mayor Dannel P. Malloy.

Now Lamont, who turns 65 Jan. 3, is set to succeed the man who bested him eight years ago. Malloy has suffered low popularity ratings, and decided last year not to seek a third term. Those ratings played a major role in the recent campaign season, with Republican nominee Bob Stefanowski painting Lamont as a Malloy clone who will raise taxes and drive away businesses and investment.

Lamont now seeks to prove he can bring promised positive changes to Connecticut, which has a massive structural budget deficit, has seen slower economic growth since the Great Recession than most states, and continues to struggle with negative perceptions from residents and non-residents alike.

In an interview, Lamont shared his thinking on the year ahead. Though he's been plenty busy since the election, forming a transition team and seeking input from constituent groups, his work officially begins in two weeks. His biggest challenge for 2019?

“A turnaround in the perception of Connecticut — our self-perception and the perception of others,” Lamont said.

He said he wants to “get people believing in Connecticut again.”

“I know that [negative perception is] tied into the fiscal crisis, but you lead with what makes the state great,” he said.

Lamont said he's been meeting with business leaders to tell them that his door will be open, that they've got a fellow entrepreneur in the governor's office.

“We're going to be working together,” said Lamont, who founded and led for several decades a telecom business that catered to college campuses. “But I can't solve this by myself, I need you here.”

Budget-wise, his goal next year is to provide as much certainty as possible, and he said recent increases in projected revenue collections are going to be of help. However, he'll still have to tackle a two-year, $3 billion-plus deficit.

“I feel pretty strongly that I don't want a short-term budget that takes the Rainy Day Fund and papers over some things,” he said. “This is our opportunity, with some wind at our back, to make the structural changes that give people certainty. And if I get that budget on time, it's not going to change eight months from now.”

He also still intends to sit down with state union leaders to discuss potential modifications to their labor agreement in the hopes of squeezing additional savings.

Meantime, the new governor has plenty of campaign promises to fulfill. He pledged to: not raise personal and corporate income or sales tax rates; and increase the property tax credit for homeowners.

He's also promised to eliminate “nuisance taxes” like the business entity tax, reduce the capital stock tax and exempt certain smaller companies from the local personal property tax.

Lamont said he was careful to scale his pledges realistically and is confident he can fulfill them. The property tax affects a lot of people in the state.

“It's the biggest tax the middle class pays,” Lamont said. “If you want our cities to come back to life, we have to do a better job of holding the property tax steady.”

Policy priorities

As far as policy goals, Lamont has a similar political advantage as his predecessor did heading into his first term, with Democratic lawmakers controlling the legislature.

Lamont said he would lend his support in the coming year to legislation that seeks to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, implement a paid family medical leave program, and legalize marijuana and sports betting. Massachusetts pot sales began in November. Meanwhile, Rhode Island opened its first sportsbook in December.

“Our neighbors are doing it. I don't want them to get the first-mover advantage,” Lamont said, adding that he also doesn't want the black market to continue controlling marijuana sales here.

Some time in the next six months, Lamont said he hopes for a court decision on a lawsuit that promises to impact how he approaches highway tolls. Lamont wants to toll only tractor-trailer trucks. An ongoing lawsuit in federal court in Rhode Island is challenging that approach.

Lamont says he'd like to pursue state and federal approvals (or preliminary ones) for tolling tractor-trailers in the year ahead.

“You've got to fix the transportation system in the state, and no one else has given me a credible way to pay for it,” he said.

When asked what he'd do if the Ocean State court decision is unfavorable, he quipped: “Can I cross that tolled bridge when I come to it?”

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