No argument from Donovan as constituents confront Malloy

MERIDEN — House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan scribbled notes Tuesday night in the front row of a packed school auditorium as his constituents repeatedly assailed Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, demanding higher taxes on the rich and relief for the middle class.

Donovan, a leading progressive in the legislature, has yet to voice such strong disagreement with Malloy’s tax plan, but he hardly seemed distressed by the rough reception his working-class district accorded the governor, a fellow Democrat.

Donovan Malloy

Chris Donovan watches the governor defend his budget.

“People talked about taxing higher incomes. That was clear, pretty much from everybody, left and right. That seemed to be the whole audience,” Donovan said. “We’re of average means, and people are worried. I think it was a good dialogue.”

Donovan knows that the State Capitol is rife with speculation over whether the speaker, a supporter of a progressive income tax and a potential candidate for Congress in 2012, ultimately will push back on Malloy’s tax plan, which was criticized Tuesday as landing too heavily on the middle class.

“People love to speculate,” Donovan said earlier Tuesday, relaxing in his office at the Legislative Office Building. “This place, people love to speculate about everything here. It’s part of the fun of coming to the Capitol, speculating on things.”

Donovan described his relationship with the governor as cordial.

“We get along, you know?” said Donovan, who introduced Malloy at the governor’s seventh town-hall meeting Tuesday night. Donovan told his constituents that the legislature will have a role to play in shaping the governor’s proposal, then he embraced the governor.

But Malloy clearly has rankled Donovan. In December, Malloy faulted the legislature for clinging last year to the false hope of a quick economic recovery instead of making long-needed structural changes to Connecticut’s operations and finances. “It doesn’t mean that they were evil, it just means that they were wrong,” Malloy said then.

Two days after taking office, Malloy tweaked Donovan before a business audience. Malloy pronounced himself a fiscal conservative, but reminded them he also was a Democrat. Then he smiled and added, “Donovan, every once in a while, he’s not so sure.”

“That was a joke. I took that as a joke. He’s a teaser,” Donovan said. “Sometimes he’ll say stuff I’m not crazy about. But, hey, you hang around here, you let things roll off your back. I have a goal in mind, right?”

Donovan said that goal is a budget the Democratic majority can support, one that fully realizes the governor’s goal of “shared sacrifice” as the state erases a deficit of at least $3.2 billion. House Democrats will have preliminary caucus on the budget today, he said.

“I think our job is to take what he’s given us and take that ‘shared sacrifice’ and make a fair shared sacrifice,” Donovan said. “I think that’s what we’re working for.”

Donovan does not say how he thinks the tax package should be altered to make it fair, nor has he tried to nudge the administration toward a top income-tax rate higher than the 6.7 percent proposed by Malloy.

“It’s not time for that yet,” Donovan said. “We’re still in the gathering information stage.”

Donovan complimented Malloy for proposing a budget that “is in line with the House and Senate in many ways.”  Donovan, a former community and union organizer, is described by friends as a negotiator, someone loathe to prematurely tip his hand.

He declined to outline any tax policies that are must-haves, and he says he does not expect Malloy to act any differently.

“I don’t think that’s a way to negotiate. If I talk to you and ask, ‘What is the worst thing you are going to do?’ You are stuck there,” Donovan said. “We have to have discussions. We have to talk. We’re talking right now. We want to work this out in as agreeable way as possible. We’re not throwing down. We’re not drawing lines in the sand.”

Donovan said Malloy already is more open with the legislature on the budget than was his Republican predecessor, M. Jodi Rell. He said he can tolerate some occasional criticism and teasing from a governor who makes it plain that he sees the Democratic legislative majority as sharing blame for the state’s budget woes.

“My job is to get a good budget for all the people of the state. So, sticks and stones, they break my bones, but words don’t hurt me,” Donovan said. “I’ve got bigger things to do. I’ve got people’s lives to worry about, people’s jobs to worry about.”

In the auditorium of Lincoln Middle School on Tuesday night, Malloy told his audience that he does not have all the answers. He said he will continue to insist on certain principles, such as a budget that is free of gimmicks and will not further harm the state’s economic climate.

“I may not be doing it perfectly,” Malloy said. “And as the speaker says, the legislature has its role to play.”