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February 8, 2024

Ned Lamont’s state of the state: Steady

SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR Governor Ned Lamont delivers the State of the State Address at the State Capitol on February 7, 2024.

Stylistically and substantively, Gov. Ned Lamont stayed the course.

The heart of the sixth State of the State address from Lamont, a Democrat who governs most comfortably from Connecticut’s political center, lay in the first 25 words uttered Wednesday after opening pleasantries to a joint session of the General Assembly.

“Eight months ago, we passed — on a strongly bipartisan basis — a two-year budget which, unlike most of our peer states, is still in the black,” Lamont said, addressing lawmakers on the opening day of three-month session that ends on May 9.

Over a 33-minute televised speech, interrupted by chanting protesters demanding a cease fire in Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza, the governor amiably defended his fiscal policies, reminded viewers of previous tax cuts and favorably compared Connecticut’s politics and policies to other states and Washington, D.C.

Other governors in the northeast are cutting spending, raising taxes or doing both. Connecticut is doing neither.

“Fiscal guardrails” or “spending caps” were not uttered, but he highlighted what they produced: A requirement that billions in surplus funds generated by volatile tax sources must go into an overflowing budget reserve fund and pay down pension obligations and other debt.

“Paying down our debts and a robust rainy day fund doesn’t short-change our programs,” Lamont said. “It has resulted in six years of consistent increases in our key social programs, rather than the herky-jerky boom and bust cycles of yesteryear.”

Paying down those obligations immediately frees up about $800 million in money that otherwise would have gone to pension contributions and debt service, Lamont said.

Constrained by those unmentioned guardrails that limit budget growth in a time of surplus, Lamont made the most of his limited new initiatives, most notably expansions in child care and early childhood education demanded both by advocates for the poor and employers desperate to expand the workforce.

Left unsaid was that $50 million already was in the the second year of the two-year budget adopted last year, and the other $40 million was coming from diverting money that had been slated for municipal expenses related to sending students to magnet and charter schools.

Lamont did not address coming conflicts with the General Assembly, where legislators are sympathetic to complaints of a gaping shortfall in the budgets for the University of Connecticut and the separate system that includes the four regional state universities and 12 community colleges.

What appeared to be an intended applause line fell flat.

“This budget is making our largest state grants ever to our state colleges and UConn,” Lamont said. “Seize the opportunity!”

There was silence.

Lamont fared better with a line meant to both highlight recent tax cuts, which were weighted in favor of lower-income earners, and push back at complaints that he has done too little with the tax code to address wealth inequalities in Connecticut. 

“Our income tax is less than our neighboring states and less than most sunbelt states for the majority of our workers,” Lamont said. “And we have eliminated the tax on pensions and 401(k)s for most retirees, and we have eliminated the estate tax for 99% of our citizens.”

That line won applause from both sides of the aisle.

Lamont  broadened his message beyond fiscal issues. He took a shot at the impact of social media on children, then said his administration would be issuing guidelines calling for local schools take smartphones away from students or least lock them in a Yondr pouch, the bags used at concerts to prevent interruptions.

“We’ll be sending out guidance to your school boards pretty soon. Have your younger students leave their smartphones at home or drop them in the Yondr pouch at the start of every school day,” Lamont said.

It, too, was an applause line.

Lamont stopped his speech when protesters interrupted from the gallery behind and above the speaker’s rostrum. 

“Cease fire now!” they chanted.

Lamont kept his gaze forward and said nothing until they were removed.

“I’ve been to a few anti-war demonstrations as well in my day,” said Lamont, who opposed the reelection of U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman in 2006 over his support for the war in Iraq. “And whatever the justice of the cause, I think you do a disservice when you’re rude and disrespectful, in a room like this, disrespecting to the people in this room and disrespecting the audience,” Lamont said.

He was applauded, though not universally in the chamber.

“All right,” he said briskly. “Back to our regularly scheduled program.”

The State of the State address is one of the few instances where Lamont utilizes a  teleprompter or wears a necktie. But his speech still maintained a casual tone, both in the text and his off-the-cuff asides.

There were shoutouts aplenty, with recognition of office holders, his commissioners and invited guests who embodied policy initiatives.

“If your baby is born under HUSKY, our first-in-the nation statewide Baby Bonds program will provide a little extra boost, more than $10,000 after she turns 18, to help with college tuition, that new home, that new business,” Lamont said.

His text called for him to then recognize Evan Calderon of Norwich, an infant identified by the office of Treasurer Erick Russell as one of the first potential beneficiaries of the program. His mother held him in in the House.

Lamont went off script, directly addressing the infant with a James Bond joke.

“Evan, I’m gonna give you a new nickname, Baby Bond. What’s your name? Bond, Baby Bonds,” Lamont said. 

It got a laugh.

Then back to the text, he added, “Stay in Connecticut. It’s worth the wait. And I want to thank you, Treasurer Russell, for making this happen.”

He ended with another reliable source of laughter and applause — a dig at Washington.

“Hartford is not Washington, D.C., where they have a hard time deciding upon a speaker, a budget. They don’t even try to balance the budget,” Lamont said. “Maybe those Washington D.C., partisans should be required to check their smartphones and in a Yondr pouch before entering their Capitol.

“They seem to be talking at each other. I like to think here in this room, we’re talking with each other. I think it’s making a positive difference in people’s lives. And that’s why we all do what we do.”

CT Mirror staff writers Ally LeMaster and Luke Feeney contributed to this report.

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