Lamont and Stefanowski pitch pro-growth agenda to Connecticut businesses struggling with inflation, worker shortage

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Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont and Republican challenger Bob Stefanowski, two former businessmen seeking the job of Connecticut’s chief executive for the next four years, on Friday pitched a pro-growth agenda before a business audience focused on the cost of living, workforce development and housing.

Businesses, still smarting from financial hits brought on by the pandemic, are now confronting rapidly rising prices and an acute shortage of workers.

At the same time, the state’s finances are on strong footing and Connecticut’s economy is gaining strength even as business conditions could be better, said the Connecticut Business & Industry Association.

The state’s largest business group’s annual Connecticut Economy conference in Hartford featured question-and-answer sessions by its president, Chris DiPentima, in separate sessions with the two candidates.

Stefanowski went on offense against Lamont, who defeated him in 2018.

“You’re going to hear a lot of rhetoric today,” the Madison Republican told the audience of more than 300 executives, managers and others. “Look at the results of the last four years. You think deeply about whether you want a repeat performance of that for the next four years.”

He cited the state’s slow economic growth — Connecticut lags the U.S. in recovering jobs lost during the pandemic — and a cost of living that draws consistent complaints from businesses and individuals. Stefanowski said he’d stop collecting hundreds of business and occupation registration fees. He cited hypnotist registration fees and levies on interior designers.

“Let the Democrats try to sue me for not collecting the hypnotists’ employees fee,” he said. “Have at it.”

Stefanowski said he would persuade the General Assembly to eliminate the fees in law, daring Democrats to support the relatively small source of revenue.

He criticized Lamont for state spending that has risen $4 billion on his watch, to $24 billion in the most recent annual budget. The governor told reporters spending kept pace with inflation and paid for more accessible child care and improvements to state services such as at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The Greenwich Democrat cited more than $100 million targeted for workforce development this year and in 2023. He also said his administration’s negotiation of a deal in 2019 between the Millstone Power Station, the state’s sole nuclear plant, and Connecticut’s two publicly-traded utilities are helping to moderate sharply rising electricity costs.

And the governor said subsidies he and lawmakers approved are helping keep down child care costs, a barrier to parents returning to work. He said labor costs are relatively high, but attributed that to high-skilled jobs at aerospace manufacturers and life sciences.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to compete with Mississippi on that front, " Lamont said.

Stefanowski, a former executive at General Electric Co., UBS and a payday loan company, and Lamont, who founded a company installing cable television at colleges and universities, have touted their business experience as preparation for the governor’s office.

DiPentima asked the governor to defend legislation he signed that was fiercely opposed by the CBIA. The measure prohibits employers from requiring workers to attend workplace meetings where politics and religion are discussed. Democrats say it’s intended to shield workers from anti-union messages during organizing drives and businesses say it’s overly broad and would make it difficult for managers to freely discuss company policy.

Lamont said the law simply allows workers to leave mandatory meetings that discuss politics. It became a “sound bite of one more heavy-handed mandate from guys who never spent an hour in the private sector,” he said.

Businesses that responded to a survey showed a “more discouraging reality” than what owners and managers reported last year, the CBIA said. In its 2021 survey, two-thirds of businesses that responded to the survey projected a profit for the year, 25% forecast they would break even and 8% expected losses.

The 2022 survey shows that although about the same share of businesses posted a profit last year, just 17% broke even and 15% posted losses.

“These losses come on the heels of the highest inflation in 40 years coupled with new and more transmissible variants of the coronavirus,” the CBIA said.

Surveys to more than 3,700 executives in Connecticut from July 6 through Aug. 8 drew a response rate of 16.7%, or 618 businesses. The CBIA reported a margin of error of 1.2%.

Connecticut’s fiscal health “has not been this robust in decades,” the CBIA said, citing this year’s session of the General Assembly that leveraged federal pandemic relief money and a $4.3 billion. Lawmakers and Lamont provided $660 million in individual tax relief, though the CBIA said more than half are one-time measures.

Surpluses have allowed Connecticut to earmark nearly $5.8 billion to reduce the state’s pension debt of $41 billion following the 2019 budget year.

The state’s economy has steadily gained ground as the pandemic retreated, due in no small measure to an 81% vaccination rate that the CBIA said is one of the highest in the U.S. Employment in construction; manufacturing; trade, transportation and utilities; and professional services have recovered, according to the state Department of Labor.

Stephen Singer can be reached at