BRISTOL – In his travels around the state, David Lehman, the new commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, said the three things he hears businesspeople talk about the most are “the three Ts – Taxes, Talent, and Transportation.
The Bristol Chamber of Commerce hosted Lehman’s visit to Bauer Inc., which designs and manufactures component test and support equipment for the commercial and military aviation industries.
Lehman started his new role in March as the department’s head and senior economic advisor to Gov. Ned Lamont. Previously, he worked in the financial services industry, most recently as global head of real estate finance for the Investment Banking Division of Goldman Sachs.
He referred to Taxes as a shorthand for the state’s fiscal stability. Businesses, whether large or small, need to think about capital investment years in advance. “To get businesses to come to Connecticut, to create jobs in Connecticut tax certainty and the fiscal stability of the state is important.”
Lehman said the governor appreciates the importance of trying to create new revenue by expanding the tax base, but at the same time holding the line on the income tax and capital gains tax and cutting the bonding “debt diet” by 40 percent.
In certain cases bonding can deliver a real return on investment, but the state has been increasing its bonding lately without “the corresponding growth that you’d like to see with that borrowing,” he said.
As far as Talent, “we have one of the best and most highly educated work forces, if you measure it by higher education degrees per capita,” Lehman said.
It helps that there is also bipartisan support in Hartford for workforce development programs, he said. “My one concern for workforce is that we are fragmented. I think there needs to be a bit more structure and prioritization about where the workforce dollars go and how we’re thinking about those programs.”
When it comes to Transportation, it’s all about tolls now, which Lehman said he supports although he realizes it’s a divisive issue.
When people say they don’t like tolls it’s usually because they want to see spending cuts elsewhere or they think government can’t be trusted to use toll revenue for improving transportation, he said.
Everyone agrees transportation is important and studies rank Connecticut near the bottom in terms of transportation, he said. “You guys have heard the metrics. We’ve got all these old bridges. Rail time from New Haven to New York is longer than it was 100 years ago, which is inexcusable and perplexing.”
Lehman said he understands that some businesses will need to pass on the toll costs to consumers, but tolling is a way of ensuring that some portion of the revenue will be borne by out of state residents and businesses.
It’s also preferable to bonding the cost of transportation improvement, because tolls can be tweaked according to whether there are more or less costs to maintaining infrastructure, he said. “It just reduces the risks of multi-billion dollar projects.”
In addition, “from an economic or business development perspective, I’m very focused on laws or regulations that make Connecticut look different than every other state,” he said. “If we do tolling we might do it differently from other states but tolling will make us like every other state on the eastern seaboard.”
“To be a great state you need to have great transportation in the air too,” he commented.
He cited a bill currently before the state legislature to lengthen the runway at Tweed-New Haven Airport, to help provide some alternative to using Bradley or going to JFK in New York.
Lehman also stressed the importance of having specific goals for the state in terms of job creation and economic growth, compared with Connecticut’s “peer group” states in the northeast.
“Our economy right now is roughly the same size as it was in 2004 or 2005, as a state,” he said. “So that’s a real lagging economy, not what any of us want to be in.”
“We can and need to do a better job of marketing the state, and marketing our strengths” to stop migration out of the state, he said, noting that Connecticut is strong in aerospace and defense manufacturing, financial services including insurance and investment management, life sciences, biomedical, and more.
“We were the fourth most innovative state as measured by Bloomberg, I think California, Washington, and Massachusetts were in front of us. But largely we were number four because of the patents that we have, we have such incredible IP [intellectual property] that come out of places like UConn, Yale, and other institutions,” he said. However, he would like to see technology become a more significant part of the state’s economy.
Lehman also cited digital media as a strength here, both in Bristol as the home of ESPN and “a significant portion of the media in the southwestern portion of the state as well.”
He would like to see government actively engage with the business community as far as pulling back on burdensome regulation. “We want to make it easier to do business in the state not harder, and I realize that’s not the perception of the state right now but that needs to change.”
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or email@example.com.