In a speech to the Connecticut Business and Industry Association on Friday, Governor Ned Lamont and challenger Bob Stefanowski highlighted investments in the workforce, small businesses and government efficiency over the past few years, and Stefanowski focused on curbing government and lowering taxes.
The Democratic and Republican candidates, both businessmen, shared a common understanding of the many challenges facing business. But their perspectives diverged.
Stefanowski began by referring to CNBC’s “Best States for Business” ranking, where Connecticut was ranked 39th and rated “F” for affordability.
“I think what’s happening to small and medium businesses in Connecticut is terrible,” Stefanowski said. “If you had a CEO in Connecticut who had performed well over the past four years, would you hire him for your company?”
Lamont, 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 the government is going,” Lamont said. He pointed out that Connecticut has a budget surplus and a healthy rainy day fund this year.
But Lamont went on to say that he wants to remain cautious about spending, with the threat of a recession not far off. “I’m trying to stabilize you,” he said.
The candidates were interviewed on stage in front of a room with nearly 300 business attendees at the Downtown Marriott in Hartford. In separate Q&A sessions, CBIA President Chris DiPentima asked Stefanowski and Lamont to respond to the association’s policy plan, called “Transform CT.”
The CBIA’s plan asks lawmakers to make a “commitment” to making Connecticut more affordable by “promoting the development of workforce housing,” helping companies offer student loan benefits to their employees, and lowering the cost of health insurance. The plan calls for various tax breaks for businesses, including those that will support research and development and worker training programs. The CBIA also introduced changes to its professional licensing and immigrant visa programs aimed at bringing more skilled workers to the state.
According to a survey of CBIA members, 85% of employers have trouble finding and retaining employees. About 90% expect the cost of running a business in Connecticut to get worse. Still, 65% said they expect 2022 to be a profitable year.
Candidates agreed that workforce development, such as technical training and skills certifications and apprenticeships, was a top priority.
“There are three, four job offers to these kids from trade schools — electricians, people with construction skills,” Stefanowski said. “Why don’t we invest more in our trade schools? All at 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 these initiatives will receive – much of it coming from federal COVID relief legislation. “We’ve made the largest investment in workforce development in the state’s history, with over $100 million this year and next year,” he said.
Lamont added that the additional funding for childcare, which he signed into law this year, will support the return of more parents to the workforce.
The candidates agreed that Connecticut needed to build more housing to attract its workforce and keep these people around.
“There is housing right next to the workforce,” Lamont said. He added that “things are picking up” with increased multi-family housing construction.
In many Connecticut towns, residents are resistant to new construction, which has contributed to the statewide lack of affordable homes and apartments. Stefanowski said the state wants to repeal the current affordable housing law and take a more individual approach in each community.
“We need to work with towns, we have to hold them accountable, but it’s about working together,” Stefanowski said. “We will use carrots, not sticks.”
Reducing the tax burden for business is always a top priority, and DiPentima asked both candidates to consider the tax reforms proposed by the association.
Stefanowski said he wants to extend the fuel tax holiday, reduce sales taxes, expand the property tax deduction and simplify the state’s tax code. He said the hundreds of small taxes and fees the state collects didn’t add much to the result, but added complications for businesses.
“On day one, I will stop collecting the bottom 200,” he said.
Lamont said he supports some of the CBIA’s recommended business tax credits. When asked about removing the sales tax on education paid by employers, he said, “It makes quite a lot of sense to me, I need to look into that.”
Overall, Stefanowski’s economic plan would reduce taxes to stimulate economic activity.
“We have to revive this economy,” he said. “I don’t care who gets the loan for it, but we have a surplus of $6 billion. Why don’t you use some of that money to stimulate the economy?”
Lamont defended his “conservative” stance on protecting these surplus dollars. “I have to be the man to make some choices,” he said. “And if I collect income here or increase spending there, what am I not doing? I do not pay our state pension debts.”