A victory for a rookie governor running against the tide

A new political reality at the state Capitol was affirmed Thursday as the legislature’s money committees endorsed tax and spending plans outlined two months ago by the rookie governor who barely squeaked into office, Dannel P. Malloy.

With surprisingly few defections, Democratic majorities on the Appropriations and Finance committees approved and sent to the floor the broad spending cuts and record tax increases demanded by Connecticut’s first Democratic governor in 20 years to resolve an inherited deficit.

The committee votes got Malloy the first two legs of his deficit reduction plan, but his success was tempered by the still-unsettled third: Up to $1 billion in labor cost concessions from state employees.

Malloy compromised on details, but held firm on a key issue: The broad-based tax increases approved Thursday included a top income-tax rate substantially below Connecticut’s tri-state neighbors, New York and New Jersey.

Ignoring a no-tax alternative offered by the Republican minority, Malloy convinced Democrats to back a $1.4 billion tax increase that maintains local aid and the social safety net, yet runs counter to the approach of nearly every other governor in the U.S.

Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, acknowledged the new one-party dominance with an assessment of an unpopular budget that sounds like a curse: “Now he owns it.”

And he does. For the moment, that ownership means praise by many newspaper editorial boards, but a dismal early job aproval rating and, last weekend, boos from an otherwise happy crowd at the UConn victory parade through downtown Hartford to the State Capitol.

His tax package was approved by every Democrat on the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee with two exceptions: Rep. Charlie L. Stallworth, D-Bridgeport, who was elected in a special election in February, and Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford.

Every Democrat on Appropriations voted for the spending plan, with three exceptions: Sen. Joan Hartley of Waterbury, and Reps. Linda Schofield of Simsbury and Kim Fawcett of Fairfield.

Meyer said he was kicked out of the Finance committee’s Democratic caucus by the co-chairwoman, Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, after he urged colleagues to vote against the spending plan. He said the other co-chairwoman, Rep. Patricia M. Widlitz, D-Guilford, who is his state representative, only smiled when he asked her to intervene.

“We are being asked to vote today for a historical increase in state taxes without knowing the significant other side of the budget deficit, namely spending cuts,” Meyer said.

The Finance and Appropriations committees met simultaneously in second-floor hearing rooms in the Legislative Office Building. Lobbyists crowded a connecting corridor.

The revised budget was released the previous evening by the Democratic leaders, House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan of Meriden and Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr. of Brooklyn, at a press conference with Malloy.

But elements of the budget still were being revised Thursday. For example, it was unclear exactly how the administration planned to restore aid to the several blue-collar manufacturing towns. In Malloy’s original budget, they lost state aid reimbursing them for manufacturing equipment that is exempt from property taxes.

Rep. Timothy Larson, D-East Hartford, thanked the Malloy administration for restoring the money during the Finance meeting, then acknowledged later that the restoration was at that point a promise, not final language in the budget.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said the budget as written appears to give Malloy’s budget chief, Benjamin Barnes, the authority to unilaterally alter up to $1 billion in state spending, which is the amount Malloy is seeking in state employee concessions.

“That’s scary,” Cafero said.

Barnes said the intent was to give him the authority to implement up to $1 billion in concessions, not unilaterally cut $1 billion if the concession talks fail. The language was added to a list of items that will be reviewed and revised.

Asked what was on the list, Barnes smiled and said he preferred not to give an answer until he had had two consecutive nights of sleeping for eight hours.

Down the hall from the hearing room where the Finance committee met, Democrats on the Appropriations Committee celebrated being able to restore $106 million of the $758 million in cuts proposed by Malloy in February. The cuts were from the “current services” budget for next year, which is the estimated amount that would be needed to maintain state services at current levels.

“We did a lot of good things,” said Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, the co-chairman of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

The list of programs that won increased funding included scholarships for students attending private colleges and universities, aid for the community colleges, reimbursement for students attending charter schools and the vocational-technical schools.

The committee also removed proposed co-payments for low-income Medicaid recipients.

Republicans questioned how the Democrats could endorse spending more money in the coming fiscal year.

“I am sorry to say, things are not wonderful,” said Sen. Robert J. Kane of Watertown, the ranking Republican on Appropriations.

He pointed to the door of the packed hearing room, towards the tax-writing committee that was meeting down the hall to approve a massive tax increase.

“What we spend, they need to match with revenue,” he said.

The state’s budget for the current fiscal year is $19.3 billion. With the revisions adopted Thursday, the state would have a budget of $20.9 billion in the first year and $21.5 million in the second year of Malloy’s first biennial budget.

Walker said Malloy’s proposed budget “was well thought-out but it needed tweaking.”