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Pragmatic Lamont resists tax hike talk

Indications are that Gov. Ned Lamont is disinclined to use the large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to make any fundamental changes in how taxes are assessed in Connecticut. The Democratic governor has rejected calls to raise taxes on the state’s richest citizens and given no sign that he will pursue the property tax reforms he talked about when campaigning for governor.

Though the state awaits his budget proposal for the coming two years, to be delivered soon after the General Assembly returns Jan. 6 (largely in a virtual capacity), Lamont shows every indication of using the state’s large surplus, finding new sources of revenue, and betting on an economic recovery to further boost revenue as the means to balance the state budget — not higher taxes.

This helps explain why the governor has warmed to the idea of working with the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, operators of the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort casinos, to reach an agreement that would allow internet sports betting and casino games, with the state getting a share of the take.

During his first year in office, Lamont was focused on reaching some grand bargain that would have brought a casino to Bridgeport, ended plans for the two tribes to jointly develop a casino in East Windsor, kept MGM from suing the state for unlawfully handing the tribes a casino to compete with its Springfield casino, and cut in the Lottery and off-track betting on any online expansion of gambling.

But hoping for everything, Lamont got nothing as other surrounding states launched online sports betting and other forms of gaming.

Now, battered by the loss of business resulting from the pandemic, the Connecticut tribes have suspended plans for the East Windsor casino and no one is talking about a casino in Bridgeport, either. That leaves online betting on the table and a governor needing the revenue it would produce.

Led by state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a bipartisan coalition of southeastern Connecticut lawmakers has reintroduced legislation to amend the state’s compacts with the tribes so as to allow for sports betting and internet casino gaming, keno and lottery. Osten and the delegation recognize that Lamont, knowing a bill could land on his desk, will have an added incentive for the administration to reach an agreement first, and present it to the legislature.

Supporting the bill are Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, and Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex. Also backing it are House Republicans Mike France of Ledyard, Holly Cheeseman of East Lyme, Greg Howard of Stonington, Kathleen McCarty of Waterford and Democrats Kevin Ryan of Montville, Christine Conley of Groton, Joe de la Cruz of Groton and Anthony Nolan of New London.

The governor, likewise, remains open to discussing the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, though the prospects of that gaining approval appear more suspect.

The governor’s approval ratings have been high as many Connecticut residents approve of his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. If Lamont can get a budget approved while avoiding any major tax hikes, and the economy picks up as vaccines against COVID allow people to again gather, he would be well positioned for winning a second term.

But progressives in the party will be disappointed in Lamont for not thinking bigger, for not seeking a tax system that is fairer, for not doing more to help beleaguered human services agencies, and for not asking the millionaires and billionaires to pay more. Too many, warns Lamont, would greet another tax hike by relocating to more tax-friendly states.

At this point it is hard to see what would move him from that position.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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