25 Nov Airo Security Declare: Transportation could make Lamont a one-term governor
Gov. Ned Lamont is still in the first year of his first term, but I don’t think it’s too early to say that the issue of transportation could make or break his chances at re-election, if he chooses to pursue a second term.
And it won’t be easy for him to get a win on the politically charged issue, whether his $21-billion transportation infrastructure plan passes, or not.
Lamont is well aware of the political risks he’s taking, and shows no signs of backing down, even if it means he only gets four years in office.
“What you don’t want to do is be so focused on the second term you start trimming your sails and pulling your punches and end up popular but you didn’t get a damn thing done,” Lamont told me in a recent interview. “I am the opposite of that.”
I think Lamont should be commended for going all-in on an issue he and many others view as critical to Connecticut’s future. Good leaders often have to do and support unpopular things, and Lamont’s approval ratings — hovering around a paltry 24 percent — have already taken a beating because of tolls.
The biggest problem for Lamont, and what may cost him the most politically, has been his inconsistency and poor messaging on tolls. We all remember during the 2018 campaign, Lamont supported a trucks-only tolling plan, but changed his mind soon after being sworn into office. In February, he awkwardly rolled out a broader plan to toll all cars and trucks, and install dozens of gantries across the state, without identifying how the billions of dollars in new revenue would be specifically used.
The flip-flop and lack of clarity cost him dearly, as the plan gained no traction. If Lamont had supported a full-blown tolls plan during the campaign, he may not have won.
Meantime, his second tolling plan — part of the broader CT2030 initiative to fund improvements to highways, mass transit, airports and ports — was instantly batted back by his own party, as Senate Democrats said they wouldn’t support adding “user fees” to the state’s roadways.
I think Lamont’s latest transportation plan is more palatable than the first, but it’s a huge miscalculation to unveil such a wide-scale, second-try initiative without support from your own party.
The governor is in a tough spot moving forward, but one thing that may help him is his willingness to negotiate.
House Democrats and Senate Republicans have both offered alternative plans to fund infrastructure investments, which wouldn’t raise as much money as Lamont desires, but could pass as a win, or at least a partial victory.
However, the politics are complicated. House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) pitched Lamont’s original trucks-only toll plan, though voters may still be unhappy if they view that as the first step to broader highway user fees.
Republicans’ no-tolls alternative would tap the state’s rainy day fund to finance infrastructure improvements. However, that plan would force Lamont to break another campaign promise to not raid the rainy day fund unless it was needed during an economic downturn.
When asked if he’s worried about how much political capital he’s spending on transportation, Lamont was honest.
“A little bit, but what do you do?,” he told me. “I look at the numbers. The Special Transportation Fund goes underwater in 2025. There is no choice but to deal with it. I’m going to deal with it one way or the other and workout any deal that works for [legislators].”
Looking ahead to 2022
The longer-term question, in my mind, is whether an issue this early into Lamont’s tenure can cost him a chance at re-election in 2022.
There are differing views on that.
“I don’t think it’s too early to be thinking about his re-election chances,” said Gary Rose, a political science professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. “We are in a situation right now with governors and presidents where it’s the constant campaign anyway. If this fails, it’s not as if people are going to say ‘well, this was back then.’ It’s going to be one of the trademarks of his governorship.”
Roy Occhiogrosso, a former advisor to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, doesn’t necessarily agree with that.
“It’s too early to be thinking about what happens in Nov. 2020,” let alone two years after that, Occhiogrosso said.
Occhiogrosso said Malloy didn’t start thinking about re-election until he was much deeper into his first term. And the former governor took on two issues early in his tenure — balancing a multibillion-dollar deficit with spending cuts, a major tax increase and union concessions, as well as education reform — that were very difficult to get through the legislature and cost him significant political capital, but ultimately not his chances of winning re-election.
“This is not unusual for an administration in its first year to struggle to get a big issue through the legislature,” Occhiogrosso said. “It’s pretty standard.”
Personally, I think Lamont could be a one-term governor depending on how the transportation issue plays out. And given that he’s 65 and not a lifelong politician, I don’t think that would be the end of the world to him, especially if he thinks he positively impacted the state’s future.