On the road with Malloy, an evolving conversation

BRISTOL–The sound systems are better. The rooms are bigger. And the crowds, well, they seem to be mellowing just a bit. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy says his traveling budget show is evolving night to night.

“It was the biggest crowd we’ve had–and relatively little yelling,” Malloy said Monday night as he walked backstage at Bristol Eastern High School after the sixth of his 17 town-hall style meetings. “I think people are getting it, that this is a gigantic hole. It’s going to take a balancing act.””

Malloy Bristol

Blind members of the audience stood as Malloy was challenged on budget cuts.

But nearly everywhere he goes, Malloy still faces conflicting demands from audiences, who disapprove of his choices of tax increases and spending cuts as he erases a deficit he estimates at $3.3 billion.

At a recent meeting with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, its members profusely thanked him for doing what seemed impossible: Maintaining $1.9 billion in education aid to municipalities.

In the next breath, one New Britain official asked Malloy what he could do to help her city replace $11 million in federal funds it expects to lose. Malloy gave his customary response, reminding her of the deficit he faces. He said he is unsurprised by the demands for more.

“People are hurting. This is a really difficult time,” Malloy said. “And the concept of shared sacrifice and spreading the pain is a difficult concept to get your arms around when you are thinking about your version of the pain. I understand that.”

On Monday, Malloy was greeted backstage by local politicians, some of whom asked to pose for a picture, an encouraging sign for a governor who arrived with a 35-percent approval rating and a $1.5 billion tax increase to defend.

Out front, the seats were full, mostly by people who didn’t seem interested in smiling, shaking hands or posing for pictures. Another hundred or so people stood in the back. An aide estimated the crowd at 650.

“This is the biggest crowd, by far,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, a senior adviser.

Malloy opened this tour in Bridgeport three weeks ago with a 20-minute introductory speech, consuming one third of the hour he allots for the town-hall meetings. Now, his opening remarks are under eight minutes. His tax increases are broken down to what the evening’s audience could expect to pay.

“What does it mean to Bristol?” Malloy asked. “There’s any number of ways you can look at it, but Bristol’s median income is $59,391. Additional income tax would average to be $500 a year — $9.62 per week or $1.37 per day.”

He quickly went to questions and comments from the audience.

The first woman at the microphone introduced herself as Kerry, a school bus driver and the mother of a special education student.

“I do not do this kind of thing every day. I wrote down what I have to say so I won’t forget anything,” she said.

She thanked Malloy for working to maintain the safety net of services, but she said his budget cuts $15 million from home and community services for special-needs children, which will make it harder for their parents to work.

Malloy replied that non-profit providers of services generally are pleased with his budget, relieved his plan to erase the $3.3 billion deficit does not cut more deeply in services.

“A bunch of people are going to get up and yell at me about taxes,” Malloy told her, nodding at the people lined up behind her. “I know that’s coming, and I appreciate it. You actually present a different side.”

But she wasn’t the last speaker to complain about budget cuts. The mother of a legally blind child told Malloy he was jeopardizing services for the blind with his sweeping plan for agency mergers. As she spoke, several blind members of the audience stood at the front of the auditorium, not far from Malloy.

Others said Malloy is not cutting nearly enough.

A nurse at the state’s Connecticut Valley Hospital said Malloy had failed to cut the managerial ranks at her facility.  She said her 300-bed hospital had 62 managers.

“How can you ask taxpayers to pay another penny in taxes when your state government agencies are bloated with managers of managers of managers?” she asked.

The crowd gave its loudest applause of the night to the nurse.

Malloy said his administration is closely looking at the size of the managerial ranks, but those changes will take time. As he did more than once, Malloy reminded his audience he has only been governor since January.

At his first budget forum, Malloy exited quickly at the conclusion of the hour. On Monday, he lingered in the auditorium, shaking hands and chatting.

On the walk to his car, Malloy said the conversation is changing. He now is challenged more about the size and equity of his proposed tax increases, not the fact he is raising taxes.

“The funny thing about Connecticut is most people realize we have to raise taxes. What they are debating is how much to raise taxes,” he said. “That makes us different from just about every other state. And I think more and more people are understanding that.”

The road show continues tonight in Meriden.