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Gov. Ned Lamont shares hopes for Biden presidency

Gov. Ned Lamont, an early backer of Joe Biden's bid for president, says with the former vice president in the White House, "we'll be speaking with one voice" in response to the coronavirus pandemic as the numbers of people hospitalized and infected in the U.S. reach new records.

With the Trump administration, there's been "a lot of mixed signals" regarding the measures that should be taken to curb the spread of COVID-19, "which I don't think was helpful," Lamont said during a recent phone interview.

"A President Biden will bring a lot of clarity," he said.

Lamont's messaging about the severity of the virus and the restrictions he put in place, particularly in the spring when the state saw its first coronavirus surge, were often at odds with President Donald Trump's.

The appointment of Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith of Yale University, a member of the Reopen Connecticut Committee, to be one of three co-chairs of Biden's coronavirus task force is just one example of how Lamont and Biden see eye to eye on how to handle the pandemic, the governor said during the phone interview.

Lamont also is hoping a Biden presidency will mean more federal money for state and local governments, whose coffers have been depleted due to steep declines in sales and income taxes as a result of lockdowns put in place as a result of the pandemic and related historic job losses. The state is facing at least a $2 billion budget shortfall that's largely due to the pandemic.

Southeastern Connecticut remains a bright spot in the economy, Lamont said. He ticked off a host of activity occurring in the region. Submarine builder Electric Boat, deemed an essential business during the pandemic, is busy with work for the next decade. Pfizer, with involvement from scientists at its Groton facility, is developing a vaccine that a recent study found is more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 infections. And "hundreds of people" have moved to the region in the last six months, the governor said.

"You've got the wind at your back," he said.

Lamont, through his emergency powers, has dictated the state's response to the coronavirus, and while both Republicans and Democrats have commended him for acting quickly during the first major outbreak in the spring, Republican lawmakers, in particular, are arguing that eight months into the pandemic, the General Assembly should have more of a say in what restrictions are put in place.

"I'm not sure that you want the legislature voting on each and every one of these items," Lamont said. COVID-19 "facts change on the ground very quickly."

The 2021 legislative session will give state lawmakers an opportunity to go over each of the executive orders Lamont has issued during the pandemic, "which could be a way in," he said. He sees the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine in Connecticut as an area where he will want more collaboration with state lawmakers.

"If they think the vaccine is safe to take and effective, I really need their voice to emphasize mine," he said. And if they're hearing concerns from their local constituents about the vaccine and not wanting to take it, he said, he wants to know that.

In Connecticut, Democrats gained two seats in the Senate and seven in the House following the 2020 election, but Lamont has shied away from questions about what the larger Democratic majorities in the General Assembly might mean for his agenda going forward.

One thing he seems sure of: Tolls are off the table. Asked what alternatives he's exploring to fund the state's transportation projects, Lamont said, "I spent all year last year saying (tolls) is my best alternative. It pays the bills and gets the job done and is predominantly paid for by truckers and out-of-state drivers."

Going forward, he said he would let the chairs of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee take the lead on any new proposals and encouraged Republican and Democratic leaders in the General Assembly to talk and come up with a solution together.

Lamont said he's optimistic that Biden will introduce a national infrastructure package that could include federal grants for states. He also is still open to the idea of taking advantage of low-interest federal loans to pay for these projects in part.

Two years ago, Lamont, in his first public speech as governor-elect, made a similar pitch for unity that Biden made during his first public comments as president-elect.

When asked whether that message, that pledge to reach across the aisle to solve the state’s problems, had resonated during his time in office, Lamont conceded, “Yes and no.”

“I’d like to think I had a good working relationship with folks on both sides of the aisle. I’d like to think people thought I was a straight shooter,” he said.

While he’s often talked about offering opposing sides a seat at the table, that hasn’t always been a successful strategy in his mind.

"Don’t just bring me an issue, bring me your solution. If it's not the same as mine, that’s fine, at least we have something to talk about,” he said. “Too often, there are a lot of sideline critics and not people providing constructive criticism.”

j.bergman@theday.com 

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