Gov. Ned Lamont and Gov. Bob Stefanowski spoke at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association on Friday, with Lamont emphasizing investments in the workforce, small business and government efficiency in recent years and Stefanowski focusing on cutting of the government and the reduction of taxes.
The Democratic and Republican candidates, both entrepreneurs, shared a common understanding of many of the challenges facing the business community. But their perspectives differed.
Stefanowski began by citing CNBC’s “Top States for Business” ranking, in which Connecticut was ranked 39th and rated an “F” for affordability.
“I think it’s horrible what happened to small and medium-sized businesses in Connecticut,” Stefanowski said. “If you had a CEO who performed the last four years in Connecticut, would you hire him for your company?”
Lamon, on the other hand, was characteristically optimistic.
“We’ve had four balanced budgets in a row, and I think that says a lot about where this state is going,” Lamont said. He pointed out that Connecticut has a budget surplus this year and a healthy rainy day fund.
But Lamont went on to say that with the threat of a recession not far off, he wants to remain cautious about spending. “I’m trying to give you stability,” he said.
The candidates were interviewed on stage at the Downtown Marriott in Hartford before a room of nearly 300 attendees from the business community. In separate question-and-answer segments, CBIA President Chris DiPentima asked Stefanowski and Lamont to respond to the association’s policy plan, called “Transform CT.”
CBIA’s plan asks lawmakers to “commit” to making Connecticut more affordable by incentivizing the development of “workforce housing,” helping companies offer student loan assistance to their employees and lowering the cost of health insurance. The plan provides several tax breaks for businesses, including those that will support research and development and worker training programs. CBIA also introduced changes to the work permit and immigrant visa programs aimed at attracting more skilled workers to the state.
According to a survey of CBIA members, 85% of employers are struggling to find and retain employees. Nearly 90% expect the cost of doing business in Connecticut to get worse. However, 65% said they expect 2022 to be a profitable year.
Candidates agreed that workforce development such as technical training and skills certifications and apprenticeships are a top priority.
“These kids coming out of trade schools have three, four job offers — electricians, people with construction skills,” Stefanowski said. “Why aren’t we investing more in our business schools? It’s all in capacity. Why don’t we open five more?’
Lamont pointed to the work of the Governor’s Workforce Council and touted the amount of funding those initiatives will receive — much of which comes from the federal COVID response legislation. “We have the largest investment in workforce development in the history of the state, well over $100 million planned this year and next,” he said.
Lamont added that additional funding for child care, which he signed into law this year, will support more parents returning to the workforce.
The candidates agreed that to attract a workforce and keep those people around, Connecticut needs to build more homes.
“Right next to the workforce is housing,” Lamont said. He added that “things are picking up,” with apartment building on the rise.
In many Connecticut towns, residents are resisting new construction, which has contributed to a statewide shortage of affordable housing and apartments. Stefanowski said he wants to repeal the state’s current affordable housing law and take a more personalized approach with each community.
“We have to work with the cities, we have to hold them accountable, but the point is to work together,” Stefanowski said. “We’ll use the carrot, not the stick.”
For the business community, reducing their tax burden is always a top priority, and DiPentima asked both candidates to weigh in on the union’s proposed tax reforms.
Stefanowski said he wants to extend the fuel tax holiday, lower sales taxes, expand tax breaks and simplify the state’s tax code. He said there are hundreds of small taxes and fees collected by the state that don’t add much to the bottom line, but add complications for businesses.
“On the first day, I’ll stop picking the bottom 200,” he said.
Lamont said he supported some of the business tax breaks proposed by CBIA. “It makes a lot of sense to me, I’ll have to look at it,” he said when asked about eliminating the sales tax on employer-paid education.
Broadly speaking, Stefanowski’s economic plan would cut taxes in an effort to stimulate economic activity.
“We need to stimulate this economy,” he said. “I don’t care who credits it, but we have a $6 billion surplus. Why don’t you use some of that money to stimulate the economy?”
Lamont defended his “conservative” stance on protecting those surplus dollars. “I have to be the guy to make some choices,” he said. “And if I collect revenue here or increase spending there, what am I not doing? I’m not paying our pension obligations.”