By Jack Rogers
From the July/August 2021 Issue
Connecticut often gets lumped in with New York and New Jersey in what the locals call the Tri-State Region, but when it came to mitigating the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the Constitution State stood head and shoulders above not just its neighbors, but most of the 50 states
In an exclusive interview with Business Facilities, Governor Ned Lamont told us what went right in the fight against COVID-19 and detailed how Connecticut has made equity and diversity the hallmarks of CT’s recovery.
EQUITY AND INCLUSION ARE KEY TO CONNECTICUT’S RECOVERY
Several states have adopted inclusive equity-driven recovery and resilience plans, prioritizing serving underserved communities and diversifying talent pipelines. Gov. Lamont told us that equity and inclusion are at the heart of key programs and initiatives in Connecticut.
“Underserved communities across this country were impacted the most by the pandemic, and Connecticut was no different,” Lamont said.
“We want to ensure that everyone that wants to work is able to, so the state will be providing enhanced childcare opportunities for residents to cover parent fees in the Care4Kids program, which provides affordable childcare for low- and middle-income families through December of 2021, as well as free summer pre-school,” he said.
Connecticut also is funding respite care that will provide short-term relief and a much-needed break to family caregivers who have been caring for elderly parents or close family members with a disability during the pandemic.
“We also worked with some of our state’s biggest attractions like the CT Science Center, Mystic Aquarium, Norwalk Maritime Center and the Beardsley Zoo to provide free admission for kids all summer,” Lamont said. “We wanted to do that to ensure no child loses out on learning and exploration as they head into the school year in September.”
Lamont told BF that it is critical that Connecticut continues to prioritize training and upskilling workers to precipitate a broader economic recovery. CT has allocated additional funding for job training programs in high-demand and high growth sectors and to support youth employment.
“My proposed investment plan for Connecticut prioritizes our distressed communities and small and medium businesses, particularly women-, minority- and disability-owned businesses across our state,” Lamont said. “One example is broadband, where Connecticut is investing not only to improve access but to make broadband more affordable, ensuring that residents are connected to remote education, work and healthcare opportunities.”
Gov. Lamont created the Back to Work CT program, which provides a one-time $1,000 bonus payment to 10,000 long-term unemployed people who live in the state.
The JobsCT Tax Rebate program helps to accelerate the growth of high-quality private-sector jobs by allowing companies that locate or expand in Connecticut to qualify for a rebate based on employee income, with larger rebates provided to those who locate or expand in distressed municipalities and opportunity zones.
“This program has gained wide support both in the public and private sector for rewarding employers for expanding their businesses where we need them most, with reduced risk to them and without burdening taxpayers,” the governor told BF. “All companies are eligible for this program, but companies in distressed communities receive a higher rebate percentage.”
Connecticut recently passed legislation that requires the Department of Economic and Community Development to prioritize applicants for economic development financial assistance who demonstrate a willingness to make jobs available to dislocated workers, unemployed workers, veterans and other disadvantaged groups.
HOW CONNECTICUT WEATHERED THE COVID STORM
Connecticut’s COVID-19 response was very successful in mitigating the number of coronavirus cases and fatalities in CT during the pandemic, compared to neighboring states. We asked Gov. Lamont to tell us which measures were the most effective in containing the outbreak.
“Connecticut took a balanced approach to our response that kept many workers home and made the decision to classify our manufacturing sector as essential so our economy would take less of a hit. It was an approach that was able to keep an important part of our economy open while protecting our people from the virus,” Lamont said.
“We had one of the highest COVID testing rates in the country and offered dozens of free testing sites for those without insurance and regardless of documentation status,” he added.
“As a result of this, we were able to get a much more accurate picture of our caseload than other states, and were better able to react effectively. We have always been a top-tier state for the quality and accessibility of healthcare, which allowed our hospitals to avoid becoming overwhelmed and running out of ICU beds or critical equipment like some of our neighboring states.”
Early in the crisis, Connecticut paid special attention to mitigating residents in long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and rehabilitation centers.
“We established Nursing Home Recovery Centers and we did our best to create separation from those who were infected with the virus,” Lamont told us. “We also did regular testing of both residents and staff, allowing our medical professionals to have an incredibly accurate picture across the state of where the virus was and how it was spreading or being contained.”
Once the vaccines were approved by the FDA and made available to the states, Connecticut “really hit the ground running,” Lamont said.
“We went with a less restrictive approach than that of most other states,” Lamont said. “The first step was using our existing muscle memory from our testing program. In utilizing that infrastructure, our healthcare providers around the state knew how to move people through quickly.”
Lamont told us that the most significant factor in CT’s response to the pandemic was an early decision to switch to an age-based prioritization, a decision which many other states subsequently followed.
“Because of [age-based prioritization] we were consistently ranked in the top three nationally for both the amount of partially and fully vaccinated adults and became the first state to fully vaccinate 50 percent of our adult population. Connecticut still sits at No. 2 for fully vaccinated adults and we hope to keep pushing that number up,” Lamont said.
Connecticut quickly created a bevy of programs to provide fiscal lifelines for small businesses hit by the pandemic, including a rapid response fund that cut through red tape and sped funding to the places where it was needed the most.
“One of the main programs we supported was 4-CT.org, which was a rapid response fund that was able to get financial support to community-based organizations quickly and without red tape. It was funded by private donations, and it was a lifeline for many food banks, charitable organizations and families during the pandemic,” Lamont said.
The state’s Manufacturing Innovation Fund Voucher Program also was repurposed to aid small businesses with the production of critical equipment and supplies needed to respond to the COVID-19 emergency. These grants were used for working capital, new equipment and other purposes that helped companies build capacity or repurpose their operations to adjust to the challenges of the COVID-impacted economy.
Connecticut administered two grant programs targeting small and underserved businesses who were greatly affected by the pandemic.
“Our CT CARES Small Business Grant program issued $5,000 to $10,000 grants to businesses with 20 employees or more, while our CT Business Recovery Grant program distributed grants ranging from $10,000 to $30,000 to the businesses sustaining the greatest impact from COVID-19,” Lamont explained.
“Moving forward, the state will look to utilize its SSBCI funding to either directly invest in equity, or to leverage private-sector debt funding as a first-loss mechanism,” the governor added. “We’ll also set up a dedicated CDFI investment fund with a mandate to invest in MWBEs or economically distressed communities. These programs allowed Connecticut businesses to better react to a changing economic reality and increased dynamism and innovation in our manufacturing industry—strengths that we would like to continue to encourage and support as much as possible.”
Connecticut’s Small Business Express program (EXP) was created to help stimulate the economy after the Great Recession in 2008, when financial institutions were not lending. An overhaul of the program was passed this year that will allow CT to continue to support women, minority, veteran and disabled-owned businesses, which were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. The new Small Business Express program will increase access to capital for smaller enterprises and entrepreneurs and make new resources available through Connecticut Innovations and the state Department of Economic and Community Development, with the program becoming self-funded by 2026.
CT AIMING FOR NET-ZERO BY 2040
Lamont told us that Connecticut is on track to meet its current Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) goals—and the long-term goal of getting to net-zero carbon emissions.
“In 2019, the last year of available data, we met our Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) obligations of 20 percent [of electricity generated by renewables] and noted a surplus in the market. We are confident that the RPS obligations will continue to be met by our electric suppliers and distribution companies going forward,” he said.
Lamont expressed confidence that Connecticut could get to the finish line of net-zero emissions before 2050, far faster that most of the other states.
“My administration has put in place one of the most ambitious climate policies in the nation, that includes reducing greenhouse gases by 45 percent by 2030 and achieving net-zero carbon electricity by 2040. I believe both goals are possible, and Connecticut is already well on its way to achieving them,” he declared.
“Our state is currently ranked the lowest state contributor to climate change and a top-10 most energy efficient state,” Lamont continued. ”We are home to the nation’s first Green Bank and are a national leader in offshore wind energy and hydrogen fuel-cell technologies. Many state-led initiatives like the Zero Emission Vehicle program, commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) also are helping us further our goal of a zero carbon Connecticut.”
Lamont is working with the state legislature to pass a Transportation and Climate Initiative Program to cap the amount of carbon coming into the state.
“That measure is critical to reaching our goals as we partner with Washington, DC, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The General Assembly did not take up that issue this year, but my administration remains committed to the program and finding more solutions to ensure we reach our targets by 2050,” he said.
Offshore wind power will be a key component of Connecticut’s race to net-zero emissions, Lamont told us.
“Connecticut will definitely have a seat at the table in the offshore wind power industry. We are well-positioned for it geographically and we have the workforce, the advanced manufacturing industry and the infrastructure to support this growing industry,” Lamont said.
Park City Wind, an 804-megawatt offshore wind project to be constructed off the coast of Massachusetts, is expected to reliably produce energy for nearly 400,000 Connecticut homes. The project will have its operations and maintenance hub located in Bridgeport (the project’s namesake). Lamont said the project will make Connecticut “an epicenter” for the offshore wind industry.
“Our investment in the Revolution Wind project will not only help provide our state with clean energy, but aims to make Connecticut a regional center for offshore wind staging and assembly,” the governor said.
EXPANDING A TECH TALENT PIPELINE
Lamont told us that Connecticut is fast becoming a hub for many tech subsectors, including fintech, insurtech and biotech, so the state has made it a priority to ensure that its workforce is ready for the jobs of the future.
“Connecticut is ready to compete for all tech investments,” he said. “We have burgeoning insurtech, fintech and biotech hubs in Hartford, Stamford and New Haven and we have one of the most talented workforces in the country at tech companies’ disposal.”
Connecticut is investing to upskill and reskill the workforce in the most in-demand fields, an initiative which will train 15,000 people with a focus on Computer Science and Technology. This effort will include embedding more IT pathway programs in community colleges that align to employer demand from tech giants including Google and AWS; developing a statewide IT training ecosystem to activate employers in the IT space around a standard curriculum focused on entry-level IT pathways for opportunity youth; and setting up a series of IT regional sector partnerships focused on convening regional IT employers to align on a common set of goals and objectives for training in the IT space, including a more inclusive hiring agenda throughout the state that focuses on non-degree holders.
The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system will embed digital literacy competencies into all traditional curricula over the next two years in collaboration with private partners like the Business Higher Education Forum, New England Board of Higher Education and tool-maker Stanley Black and Decker.
In 2016, Connecticut established a Tech Talent Committee & Fund, allocating $10 million to expand tech talent. Since then, nearly $5 million has been spent on technical programming and employment placement. CT also has established a statewide Computer Science Plan for the Connecticut Strategic Plan, with the ambitious goal of offering Computer Science in every school in the state (K-12), led by Computer Science for Connecticut (CSforCT).
Beyond talent, Lamont told BF that Connecticut has the culture to match the corporate conscience that many tech companies share.
“We are the most diverse state in New England and will always lead the pack when it comes to equity, inclusion and anti-discrimination,” Connecticut’s chief executive declared. “We understand Big Tech’s vision for the world, and are ready to work with them to make that happen.”
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