Saying ‘good riddance’ to 2020, Gov. Ned Lamont looks ahead to 2021 as Connecticut’s comeback in upbeat State of the State address

Michael Hamad, Hartford Courant

Saying “good riddance” to an unprecedented year of illness and death from the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Ned Lamont declared Wednesday in his State of the State Address that 2021 will be the year of Connecticut’s rebound.

“Today is the first day of Connecticut’s comeback story,” Lamont said in his address that was broadcast live on the state’s public affairs network.

While Lamont cited the heroics of the frontline medical workers in the battle against COVID-19, he also looked ahead to the key issues that will be facing the legislature this year. In a prerecorded speech that lasted 15 minutes, Lamont said Connecticut needs to move forward on issues that have been approved in varying degrees in nearby states.

“Sports betting, internet gaming and legalized marijuana are happening all around us,” he said. “Let’s not surrender these opportunities to out-of-state markets or even worse — underground markets.”

Lamont never mentioned a tax increase — after saying repeatedly recently that he wants to avoid raising taxes on anyone — rich or otherwise. He also never mentioned the controversial issue of electronic highway tolls that had consumed his administration before the COVID-19 crisis shut down the state Capitol to the public last March.

House Speaker Matt Ritter said he agrees with Lamont that 2021 will be a comeback year, particularly with the state budget. The deficit in the current fiscal year has dropped to $640 million after being projected as high as $2 billion from fears when many “nonessential” businesses were shut down and unemployment was high due to the pandemic. But 2020 finished with Wall Street breaking records, pouring millions into state coffers in capital gains-related taxes that are largely paid by millionaires and billionaires. Ritter expects those numbers to continue to improve in the near future.

“Revenue projections continue to get better, and I think they will continue to whittle away that deficit” both this year and the next two years, he said Wednesday in an interview in his Capitol office.

Concerning internet gambling, Ritter said he believes that safeguards can be placed to prevent minors from using their parents’ cellphones or computers to ring up large bills through gambling — a fear among some lawmakers in the past.

“Technology will allow us to put precautions in place — maximum daily amounts you can bet on your phone, retina scans are better than a password, fingerprints, things like that,” Ritter said. “Let’s say you know your Mom or Dad’s password, but you don’t have their eye scan or their fingerprint. Those are the kind of safeguards that we should put in place. I personally would vote for it, but I understand why some people are uncomfortable.”

Republicans, however, said that the Democrats who control the House 97-54 and the Senate 23-12 need to focus more directly on the ongoing pandemic and the economic and social problems that are related to it.

“We’re going through a pandemic ... and Democrats are focused on gambling and marijuana?” asked Senate Republican leader Kevin Kelly of Stratford.

Kelly repeatedly said that he wanted to offer relief to the middle-class, including on the cost of health care. When asked if that would include a middle-class tax cut, he said, “I haven’t looked at that yet. We’re not going to take that off the table.”

He said Republicans want to reduce health care costs with a plan that includes leveraging federal dollars, but the answer is not the public option that has been favored by liberal Democrats.

“The public option is a program that goes in direct competition with our flagship insurance industry and will cost Connecticut jobs — and put the Connecticut taxpayer on the hook if the program runs in the red,” said Kelly, an eldercare attorney.

House Republican leader Vincent Candelora of North Branford criticized Lamont’s address as “an artificial creation similar to a television commercial” He said he was concerned that Lamont used “a paid professional service” to arrange the prerecorded speech that was “a paid advertisement on top of a $250,000 contract that was given out.” Candelora was referring to a three-month contract by a public relations firm with ties to Democrats that has already started spreading the word for the state on the need for taking the vaccine to stop the pandemic.

Traditionally, the governor delivers the opening day speech with a wall-to-wall crowd of legislators and family members in the historic Hall of the House, but that was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols and social-distancing restrictions.

Max Reiss, Lamont’s chief spokesman, said the cost for the prerecorded video came out of the governor’s budget. He did not provide a cost estimate.

“We’d rather that any of the governor’s Republican opponents focus on their colleagues in Washington trying to overthrow the government,” Reiss said.

On the issues, Candelora said the legislature needs to be laser-focused on issues related to the pandemic.”“I don’t see how legalizing marijuana or sports betting helps people that are suffering from COVID,” he said. “I want to hear more about how we are going to get children back into schools, if we’re going to see distance-learning continue, and what are some of the base metrics that we are going to put forth that our administration can recommend so that children are getting a quality education. What impact are we having on our special ed children? I do believe most of them really need an in-person setting.’

Candelora said that Connecticut’s economy and state budget were temporarily propped up by the federal economic stimulus and increased unemployment payments that helped many workers.

At the same time, many New Yorkers fled the pandemic and headed to Connecticut, helping the housing market and providing a shot in the arm to the state economy. Lamont says he believes many families will stay, and he cited the newcomers in his speech.

“There are many reasons young families and new businesses are giving us a second look and choosing Connecticut,” Lamont said. “Perhaps it’s the quality of our education, or a more stable fiscal outlook. Maybe it’s our mayors, who creatively brought our cities and town centers to life, including some of the best and safest outdoor dining experiences in the country.”

In broad strokes, Lamont mentioned a series of other issues that he wants to see tackled in 2021.

“In this coming year, we will be expanding our commitment to affordable housing, access to broadband, transit-oriented development, open choice school incentives, as well as an expansion of our workforce development and small business growth fund,” he said.

“COVID is not the only challenge that doesn’t respect borders. I am going to continue to build upon those relationships, to implement more effective and less expensive solutions — such as faster transportation options which incentivize a move to all-electric vehicles, a zero-carbon electric grid and stronger protections against cyberattacks.”

The two top leaders in the Senate, President Pro Tem Martin Looney of New Haven and Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk, pledged to work closely with Lamont.

“The 2021 legislative session will be like no other, and our focus will be to protect the public’s health and help people recover economically, physically and mentally,’' the senators said. “Connecticut has taken appropriate and responsible measures to protect people in our state, but there is more work to be done. We know that by continuing to follow the science and care for our neighbors we will get through this together.”

Christopher Keating can be reached at ckeating@courant.com