A $2 billion budget deficit. Proposed tax hikes. A slew of costly employer mandates. The transportation funding debate.

It's no surprise that things are tense around the state Capitol, as hundreds of attendees at the annual Connecticut Business Day learned firsthand today.

"We're all here for the same reason," Senator Steve Cassano (D-Manchester) told business leaders.

"We all need a better Connecticut. We all want a better Connecticut."

Cassano [pictured above, right] was part of a business and legislative leaders roundtable discussion. That discussion revolved around a central theme: the need for change.

Economic potential

"We really believe Connecticut has enormous economic potential," said CBIA president and CEO Joe Brennan.

"It's a great state to live in, it's a great state to work in. But we have some real challenges.

"It's not about pointing fingers. It's not about whether the glass is half full or half empty. It's about taking a realistic look at where we are."

Brennan noted that  proposals to close the state's projected two-year, $2.2 billion deficit include almost $500 million in tax increases on businesses.

"We need to make some different policy choices--around fiscal policy, some of the mandates and burdens and regulations on employers, the people that create jobs in the state of Connecticut," he said.

"I think that message is resonating this year. Legislators are taking a hard look at a lot of things they are doing. We're trying to challenge their thinking and saying if we have tax increases, it's just going to continue the problems we have and make them worse.

"We have to do things to encourage growth, because at the end of the day, the only way we're going to solve our financial problems in Connecticut is to grow our economy. That's what really produces revenue to balance the budget, not tax increases."

Policy choices

Burke Doar, who manages sales and marketing activities for Farmington-based manufacturer TRUMPF Inc, said legislators must ask if their policy choices make it attractive for companies to start or expand operations in Connecticut.

"We'd love to expand here, if it makes sense for us vis-a-vis our other alternatives," he said.

"There's some of us who think we should have 7,000 employees in Connecticut. However, a lot of those job opportunities went to other facilities in the TRUMPF group who had partnerships with other localities that made it attractive to invest there."

Sound Manufacturing president and CEO Kelli-Marie Vallieries spoke about the challenges her Old Saybrook company faced in recovering from the 2008-2010 economic recession.

"We lost about 34% of our business in three months," she said. "We went from 75 employees to 34 employees. It took us until 2014 to get back to the sales levels that we were at prior to the recession.

"Some of the things that we struggle with are all the mandates that affect the business and its profitability.

"We're looking for the legislature to support small businesses, minimizing mandates and added taxes, and helping us get through to the point where we can be the economic engine that we used to be and grow jobs in Connecticut."

Business climate

Connecticut's business climate is a major factor in the state's slow recovery from the recession.

Connecticut's recovered only 76% of the 119,000 jobs lost during the economic downturn. And the state continues to slide in national business climate rankings, which House Minority Leader Themis Klarides (R-Derby) acknowledged.

"We get that the state is not business friendly," she said. "And we want to change that. The reason why we are here is because business drives our economy."

Cassano said the state "must get rid of ridiculous, archaic requirements that stop you from growing your business."

Deputy House Speaker Peggy Sayers (D-Windsor Locks) said it was critical the state become more efficient, which included the regionalization of municipal services.

"We can't continue doing things the same way," she said.

So how can the business community make a difference, particularly during this legislative session, which will have a significant impact on the prospects for Connecticut's economic growth?

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) said business leaders must actively engage with lawmakers and make sure their voices are heard.

"We have a saying around here," Fasano [pictured above, left] said. "If you're not at the table, you're part of the meal."