GOP opposition to Malloy budget melts when state dollars come home

Republican state legislators have spent much of the past three years campaigning against Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s fiscal policies.

But with the 2014 election season approaching, and with crucial state grants going out this summer to cities and towns, GOP lawmakers are taking a more positive outlook to state dollars -– at least while talking about them back home with their constituents.

Malloy and his fellow Democrats cry hypocrisy as Republicans praise –- and even take credit -– for the funding they railed and voted against.

Since the legislative session ended in early June, The Mirror found 15 instances of Republicans praising back home the funding they opposed in Hartford. That compared to three who received funds from legislative programs they had supported during the session.

GOP legislators counter that they have little choice. The budget and bond package are not broken down into individual items. Each must be accepted in its entirety, or rejected outright, even if it contains some useful items.

Sen. Len Fasano, a North Haven Republican, has been a vocal critic of the Malloy administration, voting against the last two biennial budgets as well as two-year bond packages offered in 2011 and 2013. Those bond packages are initiatives to be paid for with financing  and primarily involve school construction, road and bridge repair and other capital projects.

Fasano also noted that Malloy invites Republicans to submit comments for his press releases touting the new bonding in their districts — which seems unfair if the governor is going to object to Republicans making similar comments back home. And if Republicans criticized the governor’s budget or bond package in joint press releases with the administration, would Malloy even allow it?

Like many of his GOP colleagues, Fasano also argues that the Democrat-controlled state government spends, taxes and borrows too much as the economic recovery remains slow.

But one of those bond packages he opposed –- $4.1 billion in potential borrowing approved in 2011 –- paid big dividends for Fasano back home this summer.

When Wallingford received $181,000 this month through the Small Town Economic Assistance Program to upgrade Veterans Memorial Park, Fasano said, “I’m pleased that this grant will help to improve accessibility” to a park that honors veterans “and supports the recreational activities of hundreds upon hundreds of children.”

And when Durham got a $500,000 STEAP grant to address road-flooding problems that threatened the regional high school in town, Fasano had more than praise for the state assistance. While he praised Malloy’s office for its attention to the problem, Fasano also noted that he and other local legislators “made it a priority of ours and brought it to the attention of the governor’s office.”

His releases make no mention of the opposition votes he cast — something Malloy spokesman Andrew Doba argues is unfair.

“This really speaks to the Republican credibility deficit,” Doba said. “The more they complain, the more you realize it’s not the policies they disagree with -– it’s the party. That kind of hyper-partisanship doesn’t serve the residents of Connecticut well.”

Doba added that “Governor Malloy isn’t caught up in political gamesmanship,” but is focused on creating jobs, and improving schools while controlling government spending.

But Fasano said the capitol is plagued by plenty of partisanship, and Democrats -– who control the governor’s office and both chambers of the legislature -– are responsible for plenty of it.

“I don’t think, in my case, [Republican districts] get our fair share of bonding, so when we get it, we’re happy about it,” he said. “Some towns get tons and tons and tons of bonding. They [Democrats] buy off votes with the bond package. Sometimes we’ve got to take the crumbs and be happy with it.”

Sen. Tony Guglielmo, R-Stafford, conceded that he didn’t mention his opposition votes to state bonding this summer when he announced over $710,000 in state assistance to fix a bridge in Chaplin and a road in Union.

But Guglielmo also said that during the summer information meetings he holds in towns throughout his district, he makes no secret of his opposition to state spending plans –- including those that bring dollars back to his district.

Some local constituents “asked me, isn’t that hypocrisy on my part” to tout funding he voted against? “I asked them, ‘How do you want me to handle this? If you refuse the bonding, it is just going to go to another town.”

Guglielmo said many constituents have urged him to press for reduced state spending, but none have suggested that their town reject state dollars.

“I have to play with the rules that are in place,” the Stafford lawmaker said, adding that Republicans lack the votes to amend the budget or bond package, and must either accept or reject them in their entirety.

Still, Republicans sometimes do more than just embrace the state aid that comes to their communities, Democrats charged.

This year the legislature and Malloy approved $60 million in municipal grants for road maintenance, doubling the funding for a program that has seen few increases over the past two decades.

That meant more than $1.2 million in total aid this year for four northwestern Connecticut communities and Rep. Jay Case, R-Winsted, didn’t stop at saying he was “happy the towns are getting more money.”

A June 14 article in the Torrington Register Citizen also reported that Case “said he pushed for the bill to help the towns pay for infrastructure repair.”

Case voted against the measure on the House floor. And about six weeks earlier he used a press release to decry the direction in which he saw state finances heading. “State government needs to learn to better manage the taxpayers’ hard-earned money,” he wrote. “As citizens, we can’t spend the way Connecticut does. The credit card companies and lenders wouldn’t allow it.”

Case told The Mirror last week that what he meant in the June was that he had argued in the legislature’s Appropriations Committee that the road repair grants should be paid for with state financing, rather than out of the regular budget.

Even though the grant ultimately was paid for with financing, he still voted against the overall bond package, he said, because it was too large.

Should that have been disclosed in June to the Register Citizen?

“I have no problem with that,” Case said. “It’s just the way my press release came out.”

The Winsted Republican added that he keeps his constituents well informed on his stand on state fiscal issues. “My people know I’m a fiscal conservative and we need to live within our means,” he said.

“This has been going on for a long, long time and it shows every single one of these Republicans who engage in this behavior are hypocrites,” said political consultant Roy Occhiogrosso, who had been Malloy’s senior policy adviser and who ran his 2010 campaign for governor. “They are all too happy to take credit for money spent in their district. I don’t remember any of them turning that money down. And to make it worse they brag about it and sometimes take credit for it.”

Some Democrats were surprised recently to see freshman Sen. Art Linares, a Westbrook Republican, in a photo with the widow of a Democratic political institution: former First Lady Nikki O’Neill, wife of the late Gov. William A. O’Neill. 

Linares, who campaigned last summer against wasteful state spending and borrowing, stopped at Sears Park -– in his district and O’Neill’s hometown –- for the dedication of the new, state-funded Gov. William A. O’Neill Performing Arts Gazebo.

Linares, who couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday or Monday, told voters through a campaign video last fall , “unsustainable taxing and spending are driving seniors and young people out of this state.”

 

But not all Republicans feel comfortable in all instances welcoming state dollars they voted against.

Veteran Rep. Pam Sawyer of Bolton said, “It takes a lot of research and homework,” before she decides, for example, how to vote on the bond package.

What is the state’s fiscal health? Is the bond package focused on “essentials” like education, transportation, public health and “things that are going to move the state forward economically?” Are there local projects in the package?

If there are enough positives in the package, Sawyer said she would back it, as she did with the 2011 bond plan that included $250,000 to fight algae growth and improve water quality at Bolton Lake.Sawyer’s example proves, according to Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, that “deep down Republicans know if you vote against these projects, you undermine those efforts.

“Folks would prefer, if you are going to vote against the budget and the bond package, you go back to your district and be honest about it.”

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