Lamont gets rise out of skeptical crowd

Ned Lamont talks with residents in New Canaan.
Ned Lamont talks with residents in New Canaan.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont visited the New Canaan Advertiser coffee, defending his stance on taxes and touching on other issues dear to locals such as train service, cell coverage and teachers’ pensions.

The Greenwich resident spoke to more than 70 people at the weekly community gathering held at the New Canaan Historical Society Friday, Sept. 14. Though he met skepticism, he was still able to elicit laughter.

New Canaan’s Selectman Nick Williams challenged Lamont’s stance on taxes. “Let’s talk about income taxes,” Williams said. “The top end in Connecticut is 6.99%.”

He added, “We used to make fun of Massachusetts, we called it Taxachusetts.” In contrast, that state now is considered “the Massachusetts miracle” with a flat tax. “How about Connecticut?” Williams asked.

“I don’t think I’m there,” Lamont said regarding a flat tax.
Hold the line
Lamont tried to douse any possible flames of enthusiasm for the promise of his rival, Republican Bob Stefanowski, to phase out the state income tax.

“Before anybody says, ‘Hey look, this state was amazing before we had the income tax,’ it is worth remembering we had a much higher sales tax, the highest corporate income tax in the country, we didn’t put one dime into those pensions,” and “we had a raging deficit in 1991,” Lamont said.

“We are going to hold the line on the income tax,” he added. “We are going to hold the line on tax rates.”

Williams asked, “You will not raise the high end?”

“I have said three times now, we are holding the line, we are not raising those taxes,” Lamont responded.

“If you are in New Haven, Waterbury, or Hartford, [eliminating income tax] would just be devastating to the schools there, and devastating to property taxes jacking them up, so those folks are voting accordingly,” he said.
Property taxes
Advertiser Editor Greg Reilly, the Coffee moderator, asked Lamont, “A big part of your message, Ned, is you, as governor, would cut property taxes. I think of that as a municipal responsibility. Please explain to us how the governor will effectively cut local property taxes.”

Lamont said he hopes to bring back the property tax credit on state income tax forms, which had been eliminated.

Lamont explained also that the property taxes he would impact are the personal property taxes, including taxes on cars and small businesses.
‘Got to solve this’
Lamont described himself as a pro-business Democrat. He said he first moved to Connecticut in 1978 to attend the Yale School of Management. He started his own business, which he ran for 35 years.

“I would be the first governor in 70 or 80 years that has actually started a business and created jobs,” he said.

“We are in a budget crisis; it is really severe,” he said. “I have got to solve this,” he said. “I need business and labor, and I need Republicans and Democrats” to work together.
Budget cuts
“Before you talk about taxes or before you talk about revenues, you got to talk about spending,” Lamont said.

He said that to cut the budget the state needs to reduce the overhead it pays for 3,500 buildings the state owns.

“The State of Connecticut cannot afford to subsidize inefficiency any longer,” Lamont said. The 169 towns in the state do not all need their own tax collectors or so many small school districts, he added. Connecticut is the “one of the very few states in the country that have more administrators outside the classroom than teachers in the classroom,” he said.

When he suggests merging smaller school districts, he said the response is like he is talking to “Sunnis and Shiites.” Many audience members laughed.
Savings in health care
Lamont said he hopes to save money on health care for state workers.

“I need to sit down with labor and through real jawboning and honest negotiation” make changes. His motto will be, “You don’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need,” which he attributed to a “great labor negotiator Mick Jagger.” The audience laughed.

One way the state could save on health care is by enabling seniors to stay at home and not go into nursing homes, “which costs us three or four times more,” Lamont said.
Pensions: hole in ship
New Canaan Board of Finance member Maria Weingarten asked, “Do you support putting teacher pension plan obligations debt onto the municipalities?” This was an issue that was discussed during local budget discussions last year when Gov. Dannel Malloy threatened to put 30% of the costs of teachers’ pensions on the backs of the towns, instead of the state that predominantly pays for the pensions now.

“No. I don’t support that,” Lamont replied, to applause from his audience. “It would bankrupt a third of our cities,” he said.

State workers are retiring, boosting pension obligations up $500 million a year, he said. As much as “80% or 90% of our health care liability is related to people who have retired or are about to retire,” Lamont added.

He said the “hole in our ship is related to 50,000 retirees, state employees as well as teachers” and though it is “not the folks’ fault, we just didn’t put any money away” for their pensions.

The pension negotiations made him reticent to reduce the inheritance tax, though his opponent Stefanowski said he plans to eliminate it.

“It is not the ideal time for me to say I am going to eliminate the inheritance tax for [people like] Ned Lamont, and I am going to ask for you to give something up in terms of your pension,” Lamont said.

“I can’t negotiate this out loud in the middle of a campaign,” he said.
Rails, Internet
New Canaan Parking Commission Chairman Keith Richey asked Lamont if he could improve train service to New Canaan, since it was slower now than it was 20 years ago.

“Our location should be such a great strategic advantage for us, and it’s not,” said Lamont. One of the reasons is that trains need to slow down “going over old-fashioned bridges that we have to upgrade.”

Lamont said he would like to promise high-speed trains, but does not think it is realistic. Instead, “I think the first thing I can do is speed up the rail service by making it more frequent, more reliable and faster” by “fixing local roads and bridges.”

Lamont tied the issue of train service with the need for communications technology.

“People ask, ‘When am I going to get high-speed rail from New York to Boston?’ I say ‘100 years,’” but he plans “to make sure you have the high-speed internet access,” in order to allow people to work at home.

Moynihan agreed with the need for better technology, since New Canaan has cellular service of a “third world” country.
Jobs crisis
Throughout the meeting, Lamont listed a few ways to increase tax revenue without raising the rate on income taxes. He said he wants to increase the tax base by training people for the jobs that are already in the state, or attract more people to the state.

“We don’t need new taxes, we need more taxpayers in the sense that we have got to get the state growing again. We haven’t added new jobs in 30 years, net new jobs. And that is the fundamental crisis confronting the state of Connecticut,” Lamont said.

Lamont said he also wants to improve education and training for jobs in the state.

“We have tens of thousands of really good jobs that we cannot fill right now,” he said. A lot of those jobs are in advanced manufacturing, teachers and trades, he explained. “I am going to do as much as I can to train these people and make sure these are Connecticut jobs for Connecticut families.”

“We don’t have a great school of engineering,” he said.  
Unpopular tolls, pot
Lamont expects to increase state revenue by allowing a few unpopular new sources. He would institute electronic tolling on trucks, and he expects additional revenue from vices such as sports betting and marijuana.

Legalizing marijuana “may be a little complicated for this crowd, but all of our neighbors have legalized marijuana, I think that is coming to this state as well,” he said.

“People are still optimistic and believe in the state, and want a governor who believes in the state,” he said.