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Praise from the right, criticism from the left for Gov. Lamont

Perhaps all you need to know about Gov. Ned Lamont’s $46 billion two-year spending plan is that he was praised by the Yankee Institute, the state’s conservative advocacy think tank, and criticized by the state labor unions and by lawmakers from its inner cities.

“Governor Lamont’s commitment to opposing broad-based tax increases is welcome news for Connecticut families and businesses. He deserves praise for laying down this marker,” said the statement from Carol Platt Liebau, president of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy.

While promising to hold the line on taxes, the Democratic governor is also planning to find $300 million in labor reductions, including saving $140 million by freezing wages with all bargaining units. The administration is now in negotiations with the unions.

The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition issued a statement saying its union members were happy to sacrifice in order to help prevent tax increases, particularly for the top 1% who have enriched themselves with a rising stock market.

OK, SEBAC didn’t say that at all.

“We intend to bargain not just for fair wages, but for powerful and effective public services and for contracts that benefit all of Connecticut’s people,” said the SEBAC statement. “We invite Connecticut’s multi-millionaires and billionaires who have profited so much during the pandemic to join us in that fight by finally paying their fair share.”

Party progressives had held out hope that Lamont would use the political capital he has gained through his handling of the pandemic in the state to go big, with a transfer of wealth through taxation to attack gaps in access to quality education, health care, economic opportunity and housing.

But in recent weeks the centrist Lamont kept signaling that wasn’t his plan. Still, his budget was worse than advocates for equity initiatives feared.

“I am so disappointed in this budget when it comes to human services,” Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden, told the Connecticut Mirror. “Again, here we are, balancing a budget on the backs of our most vulnerable.”

Instead, Lamont was intent on banking his political capital in preparing the budget on which he would ultimately run if he seeks re-election in 2022. And it is sure looking like he will.

While many in his party may be seething, my expectation is that his approach will play well in much of Connecticut, where voters are more centrist and pragmatic than the state’s blue reputation may suggest. With sufficient backing from blue-dog Democrats in the House and his veto power, I can’t see how progressives can force him to do what he doesn’t want − raise taxes.

As for the next election, where would disgruntled progressive Democrats go? A primary challenge to the sitting governor would be possible, I guess, but between Lamont’s high approval ratings dealing with the pandemic and his subsequent no-tax-increase stance, any such challenge would be doomed to failure.

I’m not suggesting this is a strictly political calculation by the governor, he also happens to believe this is the best approach. By using federal COVID relief funds to help Connecticut get through the next two-year budget cycle without imposing higher taxes, Lamont is betting the economy will heat up.

And while this approach bakes in projected deficits post 2022, a growing economy could offset some of that and a re-elected Lamont would perhaps be more amenable to tax increases and maybe even some of the progressive agenda he will not undertake now.

Making life and death decisions for a year probably thickens the skin. After staring down a pandemic, Lamont should be able to deal with the angry progressives within the party ranks.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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