Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's budget address Wednesday effectively opens his 2014 re-election campaign, highlighting investments made and priorities set to revive Connecticut's economy, while glossing over fiscal and political liabilities.
Over 37 minutes, Malloy struck a humbler, more conciliatory tone than in previous speeches, a departure for a governor who too often has played the hectoring newcomer, appalled at what he's found.
He did begin with a reminder that he took office two years ago in the wake of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, inheriting a fiscal mess, including the nation's worst per-capital deficit.
"It no longer matters who caused those problems," Malloy told a joint session of the General Assembly. "What matters is that -- together -- we started to fix them."
This was a speech in which the Democratic governor eschewed the first-person singular for the plural, inviting legislators to share credit for the distance covered and offer help with the burdens ahead. Nearly 200 times, Malloy used the word "We," casting legislators as his partners in rebuilding the state's tattered economy.
"Slowly, deliberately, and sometimes painfully, we're building a more sustainable future for Connecticut," Malloy said. "As we work together to build that future, we know that it takes time for the changes made here in Hartford to be felt throughout the state. After all, our financial house was in rubble, and rebuilding out of rubble takes time."
The tone reflected a difficult reality, one he can expect to dog him over 21 months until voters go to the polls in November 2014. After a first-year tax increase that once seemed guaranteed to produce fat surpluses by now, the economy is flat, revenues are short of projections and Malloy is embracing fiscal gimmicks he once derided.
If Malloy was conciliatory, he was not chastened.
He still managed to hold himself apart or above, a politician willing to bring Connecticut out of a rut that produced no net increase in jobs over two decades and onto a new path, one requiring a willingness to set priorities and make investments.
It was a theme established two years ago at his inaugural and first budget address, when he quoted his favorite poet, Robert Frost, in praise of the road less traveled.
"Let's consider where we would be today, what kind of Connecticut we'd be living in, if we had not begun the hard work of change two years ago, if we had allowed Connecticut to continue down the other road, without a plan or clear priorities," Malloy said Wednesday.
Malloy, 57, the first Democratic governor since William A. O'Neill left office in 1991, needs to convince voters over the next two years that Connecticut is poised to soar, lifted by his priorities and the investment of their taxes in higher education and bio-science.
"They are the promise of Connecticut's future," Malloy said of the state's institutions of higher education. "Let's invest in them. Let's make them beacons that shine well beyond our borders, a clear signal of the promise and the potential that Connecticut and its people hold. Let's do this together."
Malloy also proposed a tax cut Wednesday, a phased-in restoration of the popular sales tax exemption on clothing under $50 that he eliminated in his first budget, one that raised taxes by a record $1.5 billion.
"What we saw in today's speech is the framework of a campaign," said George Gallo, the chief of staff and strategist for House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., one of Malloy's potential opponents. "What the governor is trying to do is rewrite history."
Gallo said the governor hopes to get credit in 2014 for restoring what he took away in 2011. But Gallo also praised the speech as a deft exercise in political messaging, a first step on the road to re-election.
"The governor is very good at painting a picture, framing the discussion," Gallo said. "Two years ago, he framed the discussion as shared sacrifice and the road less traveled. What he has done with this budget address, he has continued on in painting the picture."
Democrats were willing to praise the speech, even if they withheld comment on the budget.
"It's a good presentation," said Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. "That's about what I can say right now."
"I'm proud to have a governor whose commitment is to education, to economic development and lessening the tax burden," said House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin.
His speech Wednesday comes after the most difficult six weeks of his tenure -- the aftermath of the shooting deaths of 20 first-graders and six adults at a Newtown elementary school, an experience that inevitably has softened a governor with sharp elbows and a sharper tongue.
"Let us continue to keep in our hearts the many families, first responders, educators and others that have been touched by the senseless tragedy in Newtown," Malloy said. "Whatever differences we may have in this building over the next several months, they will be trivial compared to what happened in a quiet town in southwestern Connecticut."
In other speeches, Malloy has chided voters for complaining about tax increases or spending cuts. On Wednesday, he displayed empathy for those struggling along with the state to regain economic footing.
"Despite the hard work of everyone in this chamber, and despite the many good things we've done to reshape Connecticut, too many in our middle class don't feel the changes we're making," Malloy said. "The economic headwind is strong, and there are still too many unemployed or underemployed."
To lighten their load, he said, he proposed exempting most cars and trucks from the property tax, a gesture that will come at the expense of tax revenues to municipalities, not the state.
"Let's not make this budget about division," Malloy said. "Let's make it about coming together and about continuing on a path we started down two years ago: a journey to build a more prosperous and more sustainable future for Connecticut."
Follow Mark Pazniokas on Twitter @CTMirrorPaz