Connecticut Business Day drew over 300 business leaders from across the state to the Capitol March 8.
Gov. Dannel Malloy, Northwest Connecticut Chamber of Commerce president and CEO JoAnn Ryan, and CBIA's Joe Brennan addressed a packed hearing room before attendees spread out across the Capitol to meet with state lawmakers.
More than 50 regional chambers of commerce and business organizations participated, engaging with state lawmakers on a range of issues.
As Brennan noted, this legislative session will have a major impact on the state's economic prospects, with legislators wrestling with a projected $3.6 billion, two-year budget deficit.
“Every year we talk to you about how important it is to keep the dialogue going with your elected representatives,” Brennan said. “And what a critical year it is.
“The good news is this year the business community is gaining positive momentum with our efforts to raise awareness among legislators about the important issues.
"The debate normally when we have a sizable budget deficit is 'which taxes to raise and by how much.'
"Most of the debate at the state level now is 'how do we close the gap through spending cuts and concessions and not by raising state taxes?'"
Brennan noted that property owners, including small businesses, are concerned that many towns will raise property taxes to mitigate proposed cuts in municipal aid.
Brennan believes there is greater recognition among legislators that Connecticut must grow its economy to solve the state's fiscal problems and that businesses are key to that solution.
"We've got long way to go," he said. "The state's fiscal situation is very serious and has a chilling effect on investment in Connecticut.
"The business community has to take the lead in solving a lot of these problems. Ultimately, it's through a robust, growing economy that we'll have more people working here, more people paying taxes here."
Brennan said ensuring legislators understand government must focus on its core priorities was the most important message business leaders could share.
"Things like public health and safety, education, and transportation should be priorities," he said. "But we can't be everything to everybody. We just can't afford to do that anymore.
A robust, growing economy means we'll have more people working here, more people paying taxes here.
"We're not going to be able to sustain that quality of life if we don't see stronger economic growth and more people working."
Malloy told the crowd the budget he proposed to the legislature Feb. 8 should be "the beginning of a serious conversation about what state government and local governments can afford."
"That's going to be an important discussion we have this year and into the future.
"We're committed to getting the budget done...we really owe it to the people of Connecticut to get this thing done on time and within the constraints that we've laid out."
The governor’s $40.6 billion budget proposal includes almost $3 billion in spending cuts and assumes $1.5 billion in state employee wage and benefits concessions.
Responding to a question from the audience, Malloy said his administration continued to negotiate with state employee unions.
"I think we can get to a very sizable number, $700 million in concessions [for fiscal 2018]. We've done it in the past and we'll continue to do it and we'll have to work at it.
"I'm not taking anything off the table, but you need to understand that this is a cooperative venture with labor."
Malloy was also asked about the impact his budget will have on property taxes, with his proposal to shift some of the cost of funding teacher pensions to local municipalities.
“It’s a balancing act and we’ll do our best to get it right,” he said.
But he also noted Connecticut’s obligation to help its major cities, which have the largest concentration of people living in poverty and the highest mill rates.
“We can’t deny demographic and societal changes. People want to live in urban environments,” Malloy said.
“If we don’t make [our cities] safer, better educated and adaptive to the new economic reality and the new economy, then Connecticut is going to lose out.”
Malloy said this year he will again urge lawmakers to protect transportation funding in a lock box to ensure they will only be used for transportation needs.
“We need to have a discussion about transportation in the state of Connecticut because it is a true impediment to economic growth,” he said.
“Those of you from Fairfield County will note that we no longer get the size share of spread out of New York City that we once got.
“The real reason is they don’t trust us on transportation.”
Malloy said if Fairfield County doesn’t play the role it always has for metropolitan New York City, “then we fall further behind” because jobs will stop coming there and spreading to other parts of Connecticut.
Responding to another question, Malloy said his office was working to promote workforce development programs offered at state technical high schools and community colleges.
Malloy noted that when he took office, only one community college had an advanced manufacturing program. Now, seven schools offer them.
There's a growing demand for skilled manufacturing workers. Older workers are retiring, while manufacturers and their supply chains are ramping up to meet a surge in orders, especially in defense spending.
Malloy acknowledged that Connecticut must be creative in finding ways to expand the pipeline of skilled manufacturing workers.
"The bigger and broader question is that for years, everyone thought manufacturing would disappear," he said.
"Changing that mindset is probably a generational issue.
"But here's the number one selling point—you go into advanced manufacturing, and within a reasonable period of time, you could be making $90,000 to $120,000 a year.
"That’s a career worth having."