Malloy, legislators begin inevitable conflicts

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s relationship with the General Assembly is showing the first signs of strain as legislators and the administration begin the inevitable scuffling over the governor’s budget and plans to reorganize government.

As legislative committees reach their deadlines for reporting out the governor’s reorganization legislation, some legislators are balking at the new administration’s request that the bills be passed along unchanged, even if they are works in progress.

In some cases, the differences have led to a flurry of lobbying by administration officials, some annoyed or even angry pushback by legislators, and a conciliatory phone call or two.

“It’s getting to know each other,” said House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, who minimized the conflicts. Like most Democrats, this is his first experience serving with a governor of the same party.

Everyone is keenly aware Malloy is the first Democratic governor in 20 years, but a more relevant distinction may be that he is the first governor in 40 years to arrive in Hartford without having served in the General Assembly.

The last governor without legislative experience was Thomas J. Meskill, a congressman and New Britain mayor elected in 1970, when the legislature was in the early stages of asserting itself as an equal branch of government by hiring a professional staff and holding regular annual sessions.

“It’s a learning curve for me,” said Malloy, who was elected last fall after 14 years as the mayor of Stamford, a city far from the political tides of Hartford.

And the learning began in his first hours in office, when the administration notified the State Capitol Police of plans by Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman to hold an open house at the Capitol the Saturday after their inaugural.

It was then the new governor learned the Capitol police work for the legislature, not him. In fact, the legislature runs the Capitol complex. In effect, that makes lawmakers the landlord and him the tenant.

Beginning last week, Malloy truly began to learn about legislative prerogatives.

As part of his first budget, Malloy has proposed a massive reorganization of higher education and the consolidation of 87 agencies into 51. His administration has acknowledged many details remain to be worked out before elements of his plan come to floor votes in the House and Senate.

He thought those discussions would come later. Some committees insisted on making changes now, before sending the bills to the floor.

“We just see it as our job as legislators,” said Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, the longest-serving member of the House. “No disrespect. We like our governor.”

The Environment Committee deleted a provision of a bill that would have consolidated an autonomous watchdog, the Council on Environmental Quality, into the Department of Environmental Protection.

Mushinsky, a member of the committee, said legislators objected to the idea of making a watchdog part of the agency it is supposed to watch. With a paid staff of two, the change was hardly a blow to Malloy’s budget, but the administration strained futilely to restore the bill.

Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen, the ranking Republican on the committee, said the fight was inevitable between the Democratic governor and legislature, just as every honeymoon ends.

“There will be a first fight,” said Roraback, who generally gives the Democratic governor high marks. “For some, there already has been. For others, it’s waiting to happen.”

Rep. Roberta B. Willis, D-Salisbury, an Environment Committee member, said Malloy’s staff erred by making the Council on Environment Quality into a major issue.

“I would tell them, ‘Don’t sweat that small stuff,’ and this is the small stuff,” she said.

A bigger conflict came in the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, whose co-chairwoman is Willis. She has major reservations about Malloy’s proposed reorganization of higher education.

Malloy has proposed consolidating the central offices and governing boards at the state’s community colleges, Connecticut State University System, the online Charter Oak State College and the State Department of Higher Education under one Board of Regents.

Willis, who pushed years ago for higher education to complete a strategic plan, a task never begun, complained that Malloy’s reorganization was “a restructuring without a plan.”

She said she was lobbied by a number of administration officials, including Wyman, to approve Malloy’s bill as written. As a peace offering, she had her committee approve the governor’s bill – and a competing bill that she drafted.

“I am being very nice,” Willis said. “If it was a Republican governor, I would have given the proposal a hearing, but it wouldn’t have come out of committee.”

The brief standoff with Willis led to a call from Malloy’s chief of staff, Tim Bannon, to Donovan, who also has chatted with members of other committees where there was resistance to moving along the governor’s bills without changes.

“I was driving, got a call from Tim Bannon. We straightened some things out, that kind of thing,” said Donovan, who did not go into specifics. “Sometimes here, people get all excited. Then you sit down and work it out.”

Willis was not as sanguine.

“The tension in the air is palpable,” she said.

Bannon, who was a top aide to the last Democratic governor, William A. O’Neill, said everyone at the Capitol is adjusting to new players and new rhythms. The Democratic legislature is used to an adversarial relationship with GOP governors.

“We’re getting accustomed to the new realities of the building,” Bannon said.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said he appreciates that Malloy has told leaders he still is learning the customs of the legislature and expects to make mistakes.

“His message is, ‘If I’m not observing a protocol, it’s not because I’m disrespect it, I’m new here,’ ” Bannon said.

Roy Occhiogrosso, a senior Malloy adviser who has worked in the House and Senate, said legislators are coping with a new relationship and significant changes in the shape of state government.

“I think any time you propose change you run into resistance. It’s not to question the motives of the people” who are questioning them, Occhiogrosso said. “They have every right to push back on the substantive issues as they see them.”

Like Donovan, Malloy minimized the conflicts. He said he has learned that some committee chairs want to negotiate differences earlier than others, at the committee level.

“I wouldn’t read too much into anything. I think we have a reasonable expectancy our bills will come out and that we’ll discuss changes that members are interested in at an appropriate time,” Malloy said. “By and large, that’s playing itself out, and then there’s a couple of minor exceptions, and we’ll figure those out.”

Malloy said the higher-education reorganization will go through.

“What’s the option? To continue the status quo? I don’t think anybody thinks the status quo should continue,” Malloy said. “We’ve got to up our graduation rate and we’ve got to get degrees in people’s hands much quicker than we are currently doing it. And this disjointed system is not the way to do it.”

Malloy may benefit from the early resistance in some committees, learning how much political capital must be expended at times on relatively small details of a budget. Even in friendlier committees, the differences haven’t disappeared, they only have been postponed.

On Wednesday, the Government Administration and Elections Committee reported out two of the governor’s bills, but neither is likely to come to a floor vote without significant changes.

One would combine other autonomous watchdog agencies – including the Freedom of Information Commission, the Office of State Ethics and State Elections Enforcement Commission – into the Office of Government Accountability.

Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, the co-chairwoman of the committee, said it is already clear that Malloy’s proposal would not provide sufficient autonomy to the watchdogs.

“We want to make sure we maintain the independence of those agencies in the way they function,” Slossberg said.

But she said the committee is confident those discussions will continue.