Democratic gubernatorial contenders tread lightly

The late George Carlin had his “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.” Then there are the “Words You Don’t Use If You’re A Democrat Who Hopes To Become Governor.”

So the first televised debate between the six Democratic gubernatorial contenders, which aired live Friday on NBC Connecticut, didn’t include terms like “tax increases,” but rather a “need to look at revenue.”

Facing state budget deficits of historic proportions, phrases such as “cut salaries” and “reduce benefits” translated to “sacrifice fairly.” “Shrinking our government” took the place of  “layoffs” and “hiring freezes.”

Dem Gov debate 3-19-10

Democratic gubernatorial candidates chat before the debate. Empty lectern at left is for Ned Lamont, who was delayed by traffic

Besides avoiding the harsh words, the participants also found consensus around the need to grow jobs, protect social services, and invest in education and transportation. And, not surprisingly in a state where union support can sway a Democratic primary, all were conciliatory toward state workers.

“The first thing I would say to the state workers is ‘thank you,'” former Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy, one of several Democrats expected to seek support today at a meeting with state employee union leaders, said when asked about the prospect of seeking further concessions.

State workers agreed last year to a concession package worth about $315 million both this fiscal year and next, a deal that has been criticized as too modest by legislators from both parties in the context of the $3.9 billion deficit projected for the first budget the next governor must craft in 2011. “Second I would have to explain that we’re not out of the woods yet,” Malloy added.

Waterbury Mayor Michael Jarjura said the carrot approach works much better than the stick when it comes to labor. “If it’s going to be a series of threats and demagoguery, we’re going to get nowhere fast,” he said.

“The fact of the matter is our state employees are people too,” added health care advocate and former state Rep. Juan Figueroa of Meriden.

“We need to sacrifice fairly,” said Simsbury First Selectwoman Mary Glassman. “We can’t do this with cuts alone. If we laid off every single state employee we still wouldn’t be out of this deficit.”

Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi effectively took the idea of state employee layoffs off the table without using the word. “Jobs are absolutely critical,” he said. ‘What good would it do to create more unemployment?”

Greenwich businessman Ned Lamont, a cable television executive, said that in business, “the best ideas I get are from the folks in the field,” and that he would ask state employees to show him how to cut government costs. But a good place to start, he added, would be by eliminating excessive top administrative posts like deputy commissionerships – which are not unionized.

Salaries and benefits for state employees represent about one-third of this fiscal year’s $18.64 billion state budget. Combined with more than $2.7 billion in municipal aid, the majority of which supports municipal personnel costs, nearly half of the state budget is tied to public-sector labor.

Given that the projected deficit for the 2011-12 fiscal year equals roughly 21 percent of this year’s entire budget, and 60 percent of annual state income tax receipts, candidates spoke only in the broadest terms – with one exception – about where they might look for more dollars.

Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi bucked a new Quinnipiac University poll this week that showed 56 percent of Connecticut residents oppose returning tolls to the state’s highways, arguing they would provide much needed revenue and enable greater business development and job growth.

Glassman said the first place she would look for new revenue is to Washington, arguing Connecticut isn’t taking full advantage of fund for health care, child welfare services and economic development. “We’re leaving millions of dollars on the table,” she said.

State government also wouldn’t need to repeatedly search for new dollars to fund priorities like highway repairs if officials kept their hands off existing dedicated sources, Glassman added, such as hundreds of millions in fuel taxes diverted into the general fund since 2005. “We just don’t have the discipline to follow long-range strategies,” she said.

With more than six weeks still left in the regular 2010 General Assembly session, Figueroa said there’s no reason that Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the legislature can’t start going some of the heavy revenue-lifting before he or one of the others takes office. “Tackle the issue now,” he said. “Look at the revenue side, look at the revenue side in a serious way.”

Lamont said government has to restore the public’s confidence that it is spending wisely the tax dollars it receives now, before it asks for more.

“Right now there is some skepticism there,” he said. Rather than discuss taxes, he offered cost-cutting options like bulk purchasing of health insurance, vehicles, and even stationary. “I think you start there before you look at taxes,” he said.

The candidates were divided over whether to revisit the debate over capital punishment next term.

Lamont and Marconi said the economy should remain top focus right now, while Glassman indicated she wouldn’t propose repeal of the death penalty, but wouldn’t shy away from that effort if others launch it.

Jarjura said the debate isn’t needed now, but added that the big problem with the death penalty right now is a prolonged and inefficient jury selection process in capital felony cases, not the actual sanction itself.

But Malloy, a former New York prosecutor, said the state’s fiscal crisis and the capital punishment are separate issues, and the former shouldn’t forestall a debate on the latter.

“I happen to believe it is not the job of government to put people to death,” he said, adding that “there’s always time to take up important issues.”

Figueroa agreed with Malloy that capital punishment should be repealed now.

Tuesday’s forum also showed that the New York Yankees hold the edge over the Boston Red Sox in the race to be Connecticut’s next first fan.

Four of the six declared their loyalties for the Yankees, though Malloy and Marconi tried to hedge their positions by declaring that others in their family pull for Boston. Figueroa is a Mets fan.

“Go Red Sox,” said Glassman, the lone exception to the New York trend.