WATERBURY– Residents of Connecticut’s fourth-largest city had no trouble defining their priorities Tuesday night as they enjoyed their turn grilling Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on his plan to close the state budget deficit.
Sure there were a few advocates for universal health care. A few state employees complained about top-heavy administration. And a contingent from W.F. Kaynor vocational-technical school urged the governor to reconsider his plans to turn the state’s vo-techs over to their host cities and towns.
But for the other residents who spoke and, judging by their cheers and jeers, for the hundreds more who watched, the issue of the night boiled down to two simple recommendations: Cut spending and don’t raise taxes.
“Have you looked into reforming the welfare system in this state?” Susan Devino Moriarty of Waterbury asked the governor, arguing state government could save big dollars by tightening aid for those on public assistance. “Welfare to me was a stop-gap safety net, not a way of life.”
Rephrasing Malloy’s often-used call for “shared sacrifice” to help close a deficit equal to nearly one-fifth of current spending, Plymouth resident Steve Barnard objected to the governor’s proposal to add five new state income tax brackets and cancel a popular, $500 property tax credit for the middle class. “We should really name it for what it is: middle-income sacrifice,” he said.
Malloy, who inherited a $3 billion-plus deficit for the upcoming fiscal year when he was sworn into office in January, did his best to find common ground with Brass City residents.
“I’m a firm believer that Connecticut’s government has gotten out of control,” he said, reminding participants that his budget would merge 81 agencies down to 57, and that he is seeking $1 billion in labor concessions and other savings.
The governor also tried to offer hope for the future, pledging to present more plans to downsize government and restrict state spending next year. “That (budget) is only Round 1,” he said. “What I’m saying to you is this is only the beginning of change.”
“You’re right, there is change — but not much left,” Arthur Denz of Waterbury punned in response, reaching into presumably empty pockets.
Denz urged Malloy to follow the example of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, who declined to recommend tax increases in his plan for the coming fiscal year. “We need a little fiscal responsibility by the people in Hartford who have been spending like wildfire,” he added. “We’re broke. We can’t take tax increases any longer.”
Malloy, whose plan includes more than $1.5 billion in tax hikes next year to close the budget deficit, noted that he not only avoided any cuts to the overall municipal aid package of $2.8 billion, but his plan also would provide communities with $85 million in new revenues next year by expanding their taxing powers.
Municipal leaders across Connecticut would have had to boost property taxes–and take the political heat now being aimed at Hartford–had the new budget cut town aid to scale back state tax hikes, Malloy said, adding that while this is a popular fiscal move for other governors, it is deceptive, and one he won’t follow.
“I’m not looking to shift my responsibilities,” he said.
Malloy also retreated to a position he frequently has staked out during earlier Town Hall-style meetings on the budget that he began last month: reminding residents that the deficit he inherited was created under his predecessor, M. Jodi Rell.
But Tuesday he went a little farther back in time, noting that one of the biggest and fastest-growing expenses state government faces are the health care benefits guaranteed to state employees and retirees by a 20-year contract agreed to in 1997 by then-Gov. John G. Rowland. Rowland, a Waterbury native, is still highly-regarded in the city despite the corruption scandal that led to his resignation and imprisonment.
“I cannot deny the circumstances under which this state was run for a number of years,” Malloy said, citing the health care expense and other questionable fiscal moves of past governors, hinting at Rowland, but using no names. “You probably voted for him,” Malloy added. “I’m willing to bet some of you did.”
One state employee joined the chorus of calls for cuts in spending: Robert Atkins of the Department of Children and Families urged Malloy to look thoroughly for waste in his department, particularly in an administration that he said is failing to manage properly.
“I work for an agency that is totally dysfunctional,” Atkins said, predicting that his comments would be unpopular back at the office. “I will be continually threatened by my union and my supervisors.”
But Department of Correction worker Lisamarie Fontano, president of Local 387 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers, asked Malloy first to try to implement cost-saving ideas offered by state employee unions before pursuing major wage- and benefit-givebacks.
Malloy, who has said the unions’ cost-saving ideas aren’t close to sufficient to make concessions unnecessary, pledged to review all suggestions nonetheless, and used the Waterbury crowd to help make his case for union cooperation.
“Don’t just hear my voice,” he said to Fontano. “Hear the voice of everyone who’s anguished about their tax bill.”