Kevin Lembo: Growing Nutmeg State from raw materials

This Op-Ed originally appeared in Hearst newspapers.

I couldn’t help but geek out on a recent visit to a Connecticut manufacturing company that builds turbines for the aerospace industry.

Way at the beginning of the supply chain this company takes raw material — a rough sheet of metal —and helps it along its journey to becoming a blade that will eventually help an airplane fly through the sky.

There’s something remarkable about seeing a company turn nothing into something — adding value to a natural resource, and then passing it along the chain so that yet another company in Connecticut can add another layer of value to something that started as nothing much.

Transformations like this, adding value to material that we already have, happens at manufacturing firms in Connecticut every day. Imagine if Connecticut applied that approach to its broader big-picture economic development strategy — taking the raw material that we already have and turning it into something greater and more valuable.

Right now, Connecticut has all of the raw material necessary to be an economic highflier, but the parts are scattered, waiting for us to piece it all together.

Our raw materials include: a productive workforce, institutions of higher education churning out young innovators, trade schools and technical training programs molding future engineers and kids who want to build things with their hands, location, quality of life, more PhDs per capita than most states, shoreline, farm country and culturally diverse urban centers.

While many of these pieces sit overlooked, disconnected from one another, we’ve been waving “apology money” in the air, chasing corporations as they run for the border. Rather than beg companies to keep on loving us a little bit longer, even though we’ve been an unreliable partner, why don’t we take our scarce resources and focus more on investments that raise up the people, material and assets that we already have? These are the investments that benefit the broader economy, make us the reliable partner that we should have been long ago, and help rebuild a strong middle class that will grow for another 30 years and more.

Data should be driving our investment decisions. Consider this: Connecticut spent more per capita on picking winners and losers — that is, direct assistance to individual companies — between 2011 and 2015 than any of our neighboring states, all of whom experienced greater economic growth in that same time period. Something isn’t working here, and we need to admit it.

It’s time for Connecticut to pivot from extensive growth — that compulsion to throw scarce resources that we don’t really have at what we think is the next big “shiny thing” — and focus more on intensive growth, more productively using what we already have.

So how do we do that?

First, we need to think long and hard about how we use our limited resources. It begins by understanding that we sometimes must say “no” to something, and that can be hard.

Our economic development strategy must have a new value proposition — one that prioritizes investments that add broader value to our economy, whether it involve workforce training and education or building roads, high-speed broadband, public transportation and quality of life.

Second, we need to get our own financial house in order. We must wrangle down our debt, unfunded pension liabilities and volatile revenue reliance, and focus on using Connecticut’s raw materials more productively. If the state can’t help itself, then it can’t help anyone else.

We must be reliable partners to business, municipalities, nonprofits and our residents. That means connecting the dots between state government and businesses — including the relationships between academia (including our trade schools) and companies that have jobs to fill. In some areas of the state, these parts are coming together, but that must be applied statewide, and more productively and effectively. It means that we can’t break promises we make to some of our biggest employers, including hospitals and other corporations that serve as the pillars of Connecticut’s economy.

Some people measure success by the number of businesses that we successfully pay to stay in Connecticut for another year, but I’m more inclined to measure success by our movement toward financial and regulatory predictability, and the number of cranes I see in the air.

The government is very bad at picking winners and losers. Let’s leave that to the private sector. We can either convince one business to stay for another year, praying they don’t slam their laptops shut when their commitment expires, or we can build an environment where the heads of companies, and every worker below them, is compelled by their own personal desire to live and work in our state.

With all of that raw material that we have at the ready, Connecticut is not a rest stop between New York and Boston — it’s the unrealized idling economic engine of the northeast.

Kevin Lembo is comptroller for the State of Connecticut.