Connecticut liberals lament lack of bold proposals in Lamont budget proposal as governor strikes a centrist tone.

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Daniela Altimari, Hartford Courant
·5 min read
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With the state facing a devastating pandemic that has exposed longstanding racial and economic injustices, liberals in the legislature and progressive activists were looking to Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget for bold solutions.

Instead, they say, the Democratic governor provided a series of cautious, incremental proposals that are sharply out of step with the times.

Lamont’s budget “ignores the clear and immediate needs of many vulnerable people in our state,” said Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor. “This is not a time for the status quo; this is a time for transformative leadership.”

The budget, delivered to lawmakers Wednesday, is notable for what it does not include: there’s no proposal for government-funded healthcare, no plan to address housing segregation in the suburbs and no call to raise taxes on the wealthy, all priorities pushed by progressives in the General Assembly.

“If we don’t make those structural changes now to put us back on an equitable course, and he’s ignoring the widening suffering, what did we win this big majority for?’' said Rep. Anne Hughes of Easton, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s progressive caucus. “We might as well be Republicans.”

Lamont acknowledged in a speech Wednesday that a budget is more than merely a tally of revenue and expenses.

“Rather, it is a reflection of our shared values, as we are collectively deciding not only what we are funding but why we are funding it,’' Lamont said. “It is a document that defines who we are as a state and a society.”

To his critics on the left, that’s the problem. Lamont’s plan “does not meet the urgency of this moment,’' said Sal Luciano, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO.

“The governor talked about COVID quite a bit, but I’m not sure he talked about the 200,000 people that are out of work,’' Luciano said. “He didn’t talk about the people who are concerned whether or not they’re going to eat a meal today.”

New Haven’s Democratic Mayor, Justin Elicker, was blunt: “The Governor’s unwillingness to raise taxes on the wealthy means effectively raising taxes on the working poor in New Haven.”

In his 25-minute budget speech, Lamont was equally blunt: “We don’t need more taxes, we need more taxpayers.”

The divide among Democrats in Connecticut mirrors the split nationally between Joe Biden and liberal standard bearers such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders. In Washington, Biden has, at least for now, be able to unite a fractious party.

Lamont’s relationship to the progressive wing of his party is complicated. He first ran for statewide office in 2006, when he took on the Democratic establishment over the morality of the Iraq War. And in his first two years as governor, he signed a number of high-profile bills championed by his party’s liberal wing, including paid family and medical leave and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by June 1, 2023.

Now, as Lamont begins the second half of his gubernatorial term, his critics say he has morphed into a centrist who prefers playing it safe.

“The governor has empathy and for that I’m profoundly grateful but empathy is not enough,’' Hughes said. “We are one Connecticut ecosystem and to have the wealthiest and the corporations pay their fair share is helping the entire ecosystem.”

Republicans offered a kinder assessment of Lamont’s cautious approach, even as they criticized other parts of his plan, such as its reliance on the federal government to help close budget gaps.

Rep. Vin Candelora, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, said he’d give the governor a B. “A lot of these proposals didn’t upset me very much and they didn’t excite me very much,’' he said.

Lamont’s background—he is a wealthy businessman from Greenwich who perhaps would identify as a moderate Republican in another era—shapes his world view, Luciano said. “When we had him talk to some people who were suffering, he was able to be compassionate. He just doesn’t see those people. That’s not who he hangs around with.”

The impact of the governor’s proposal to raise the gas tax to fund mass transit and address climate change would fall heaviest on working people, Luciano said. “The only revenue he’s raising is the regressive tax on gas, which means the essential worker, the person who works at Stop & Shop is going to pay more than the banker who made all that money in the stock market this year and is working from home,’' Luciano said.

Lamont, who has not signaled whether he will seek reelection in 2022, though Candelora said he views the budget as a clear sign that Lamont will run again.

“It’s a very safe budget for a reelection campaign and that’s what’s sort of sad right now because we can’t be focusing on election cycles,” Candelora said. “We really need to be focusing on the state of Connecticut.”

The governor has enjoyed high poll ratings, thanks largely to his handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

“He’s done a terrific job in leading the state through some very dark times,’' Hughes said. “But approval ratings aren’t policy changes.’'

In 2018, Lamont received the backing of most major labor unions, including those under the AFL-CIO umbrella. Asked if the labor federation would support him in 2022, Luciano said, “I’m not ready to abandon him yet and I hope that he hasn’t abandoned working people yet.’'

Daniela Altimari can be reached at dnaltimari@courant.com.