Lamont talks tolls, stabilizing state spending at chamber meeting

Greater Valley Chamber of Commerce members washed down their breakfast Tuesday morning with some talk on tolls, regionalization and stabilizing the state’s spending.
Topics ranging from transportation spending to reducing the state’s debt were on the menu during Gov. Ned Lamont’s keynote address before a packed house of area business people and state and local lawmakers at the chamber’s 55th annual meeting held at Brownson Country Club in Shelton.

“I am optimistic, but I can’t look at life through rose-colored glasses,” said Lamont, as he held up a pair of such glasses that were given to each attendee. “I am very clear on what we have to do in this state.”
And for Lamont that is getting the state’s “fiscal house in order” by reducing debt and focusing on increasing revenues, all while pushing for transportation improvements — using his preferred payment method, electronic tolls — and developing a workforce trained for 21st century job opportunities.
On the issue of transportation, Lamont called on those in attendance to urge lawmakers to support electronic tolls, calling the Republican plan of “prioritized progress,” which calls for $700 million in borrowing, not a sustainable option.
“We need to be very careful in terms of how much more debt we place on the Connecticut taxpayers,” said Lamont. “I know this is not popular, but it is real, the idea of a user fee to pay for transportation expenses. That user fee would be collected through electronic tolls.
“I get the idea that this is just another money grab, that we’re just pouring money down the rathole, DOT costs a fortune, and you’re asking middle class people to pay for it,” said the governor, adding that there will be incentive for lower wage workers to aid in covering some of the toll costs. “I have to do a better job of showing people that we get it. I need to convince people that investing in transportation … is the most fundamental investment we can make to get the state growing again.”

Lamont said the funds raised — of which 40 percent, according to the governor, would come from out-of-state drivers — would be placed in the special transportation fund. Lamont said not borrowing for some $700 million in necessary transportation upgrades — whether bridge repair or replacement or improvements to speed up Metro-North or driving time on interstates 95 or 84 — allows the state to bond for other necessary projects, such as work on schools or affordable housing.
“You need to weigh in,” said Lamont to the packed hall. “I need the business community to weigh in. I need people who know how to make sure the numbers add up, and you can’t make up numbers. We’ve been making up the numbers in Hartford for many, many, many years.”
Chamber President Bill Purcell asked Lamont how his administration could “encourage” regionalization in an attempt to reduce state costs.
“You used the right word, encourage,” said Lamont, referencing the firestorm caused when proposals to regionalize school districts was broached during the state budget process.
“We respect the feisty independents in this state,” said Lamont.
The governor said that in some school districts, for example, student populations have stagnated or even slipped. He said that the state could bond for new schools in each district, as has always been done, or the state could offer incentives, such as covering 100 percent of capital costs, if the district’s build one school to support the region. “And it is not just saving capital costs,” said Lamont adding that this could help save money through reducing administrative costs. “We’re one of the only states in country that pays more for education outside of the classroom than inside the classroom. I will do everything I can with incentives to make the appropriate decisions (regarding regionalization).”
Lamont also told those in attendance about his focus on saving costs associated with the state employees’ and teachers’ pension plans as well as state health care
“What we have done is we’ve reduced costs by $100 million a year on both the teachers’ and state employees’ plans, and we’re just getting started,” said Lamont.
Lamont has stated that he demands the state begin a “debt diet” after examining the books and finding fixed costs rapidly rising while revenues remain stagnant or dip — a fact the governor called unsustainable and a route to bankruptcy.
“We have become addicted to debt in this state for a long time,” said Lamont, “shoving operating expenses onto the credit card. (Borrowing) was up by 60 percent over the last eight years. That is absolutely unsupportable,” he said.