Malloy finds ‘political cover’ in an unexpected place

Gov.-elect Dan Malloy is a Democrat elected with strong union support, but a former Republican rival said today it is the business community that must give Malloy the “political cover” he needs to reform the state’s finances and boost its economy.

Oz Griebel, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for governor last summer, welcomed Malloy today in his role as the president of Greater Hartford’s major business association, the MetroHartford Alliance.

Malloy was repeatedly interrupted by applause as he told a predominantly business audience of about 500 that state government has allowed Connecticut’s business climate to erode precipitously in comparison to competing states.

Malloy MetroHartford

Dan Malloy making a point.

“There is no excuse for having done that,” Malloy said. “After all, other states, even in our region, began making the changes they needed to make on a bipartisan basis years ago. Massachusetts certainly did it.”

The Bay State recently was rated by CNBC as having the 5th best business environment, compared to 35th for Connecticut.

Malloy, who intends to propose tax increases and spending cuts to erase a deficit of more than $3.5 billion in February, said Connecticut needs a stable environment for businesses to make decisions.

He is meeting later today with United Technologies, the conglomerate that is the state’s largest private employer. It was a UTC executive who told Wall Street analysts earlier this year that the state is hostile to business.

“We have to have an ongoing dialogue,” Malloy told reporters after his speech. “I want them to know the message.”

Malloy has been warmly applauded in appearances around the state as he outlines the state’s challenges and gives a broad overview of the harsh medicine that he says is necessary to restore fiscal health. But the specifics of that medicine will not come until he proposes a budget in February.

“As far as I’m concerned he hit the ball out of the park,” Griebel said after today’s speech. “I think he delivered the kind of message many of us in this organization feel have to be followed. There has to be a change in the approach to the budget. There has to be a change in the approach to service levels. There has to be an approach to the way that all of us are held accountable.”

Griebel said he expects that Malloy will face opposition from some of the unions that helped elect him.

“Our role is to make sure we give him the kind of political cover we think he’s going to need, because we know there are going to be strong, vested interests in state government,” Griebel said.

Matthew Nemerson, the president and chief executive officer of the Connecticut Technology Counci, an association of technology companies, said the business community is excited and nervous about the prospect of an activist governor taking office.

“I think they are delighted to have an intellectual partner,” Nemerson said. “I think they are scared to death about the honest conversations that have to happen about what it takes to be competitive.”

Leo Canty, a vice president of the AFL-CIO, said labor endorses the general principles outlined by Malloy, that now is the time to pull together. Like the business community, Canty said, labor is intrigued to see how Malloy tackles the short-term challenges of the budget, while building a foundation for a long-term, sustainable recovery.

“We haven’t had a long-term perspective in a long time,” Canty said.

Nemerson said the state is ready to be pushed and prodded, even if it means some pain. For too long, he said, the state has ducked facing its structural financial problems.

“It’s like we had a mom who sort of said, ‘You don’t have to do your homework, you don’t have to eat your vegetables, but just don’t show up too wasted when you come home from a party,’ ” Nemerson said.