In his fourth and final State of the State address before facing re-election, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Thursday delivered a ringing defense of his response to an inherited fiscal crisis and a rebuke of critics who he says refuse to acknowledge a slow, yet measurable recovery from recession.
The first-term Democratic governor, who often displays a strident confidence, struck notes of both defiance and humility in a televised midday speech to the General Assembly that formally marked the opening of the 2014 session and a new phase in his undeclared candidacy.
“Our work hasn’t been easy. No person – and certainly no government – is perfect. And, Lord knows, I’m not. All of our progress has come with setbacks along the way,” Malloy said. “But together we’ve proven that positive change, while hard, is possible. That progress is possible.”
Malloy, 58, whose narrow gubernatorial victory in 2010 was the first by a Democrat in 24 years, stood before legislators marked as wounded in public opinion polls, yet buoyed by a degree of fiscal stability that allows him to propose modest tax cuts, reduce long-term debt and set aside cash reserves.
In a promise to voters and a warning to legislators, including some in his own party eager to use a portion of a projected $506 million surplus to expand services, Malloy outlined a simple formula for handling improving revenues.
“We do three things: we shore up our savings, we reduce our debt, and we give some back to taxpayers,” Malloy said. “Finally, let me say this: If our surplus increases in the months ahead, the extra funds should be split between our Rainy Day Fund and long-term obligations – not spent.”
Every State of the State is a political document, none more so than in an election year, as evidenced by the squads of critics and supporters who stood ready to offer instant analysis and by some of the dramatic flourishes the governor employed.
The governor emulated what is now a standard practice at State of the Union speeches, recognizing individuals in the audience who illustrate themes: the UConn grad hired by a company that expanded with state aid; an urban mother whose children are benefiting from early learning.
Malloy’s 43-minute speech was a synthesis of a message he will repeat throughout the year: The state has come far from the day he took office three years ago, greeted by a $3.7 billion deficit that was the worst per-capita shortfall in the U.S.; there is more work to do, even among signs of improvement; he has a plan to go forward; and the naysayers are wrong.
In a brief passage near the conclusion of his speech, the Democrat quoted a popular Republican president, now the subject of a best-seller by Doris Kearns Goodwin, to rebuke GOP critics as petty.
“Teddy Roosevelt said a century ago that it’s not the critic who counts, but those who strive to do great things,” Malloy said. “We hear plenty of critics, even now. Even as sunshine begins to break through the clouds, there are some intent on hoping for thunderstorms.”
As an example, he said Connecticut’s state-run health exchange has led the most successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but small missteps bring howls.
“We should not listen,” Malloy said. “Connecticut is moving forward.”
The governor's audience included at least three Republicans seeking his job: Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney of Fairfield, Tom Foley of Greenwich and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton. All three said Malloy was downplaying the state's continuing economic struggles and overplaying a surplus inflated by gimmicks.
"This is all about getting re-elected," McKinney said.
"This is a 'Happy Days are Here Again' speech," said Foley, the 2010 GOP nominee. "And people are still struggling."
"He lives in a fantasy land in terms of what the average middle-class families are experiencing across the state of Connecticut," said Boughton, a former state represenative. He attended with his running mate, Heather Bond Somers of Groton.
With a mix of new initiatives and those recently previewed, Malloy showed he will run on a platform that overlaps with priorities outlined by President Obama, including a pledge to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 by the beginning of 2017 and to end homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015.
He reiterated his support for early childhood education, setting a goal of universal pre-kindergarten. He laid out a tax-free college-savings plan with a modest matching grant from the state.
With no U.S. Senate race in Connecticut for the first time in three statewide elections, Malloy will lead the Democratic ticket. The prospect rattles some Democrats in swing districts, given the governor's failure to top 50 percent in job-approval or other measures in public polling.
But House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, and Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Willliams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said the governor's agenda was one welcomed by most rank-and-file Democrats.
"I think it sets the tone in a very positive way at the beginning of the session," Williams said.
Sharkey said the governor's cautious approach to spending the surplus is good advice for legislators and will play well with voters.
"He is doing responsible things," Sharkey said. "He is doing what families do whenever they run into a financial crisis.”
Resilience and patience were themes sounded by Malloy in the opening minutes.
He compared the state, and by implication his administration, to a small business owner he recently visited: Steve Weinstein, whose farm in East Hartford was devastated by a snowstorm last year, destroying 80 percent of his production capacity.
“His business was close to failure. Steve had a choice to make. What did he do? He dug in. He pushed ahead. He did the hard-but-necessary work of rebuilding,” Malloy said. “Today Steve’s company is back in business sending locally grown products to towns and cities across Connecticut. He isn’t back to 100 percent – rebuilding takes time – but thanks to his hard work and just a little help from the state, he’s making real progress, and he’s part of Connecticut’s economic recovery.”
Aware of complaints that he too often points to the shortcomings of his predecessors, Malloy offered a tempered critique of bad fiscal habits that he is trying to correct: Incurring debts in bad times and deferring pension obligations.
“I say this not to lay blame for past problems, but because those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it,” he said. “I say it so that we can understand what we’ve changed, and precisely what that change has meant to the people of Connecticut.”
Economists say no governor should bear blame or take credit for employment statistics, but Malloy said his administration has helped create an economic environment in which the private-sector has added 40,000 jobs, unemployment has dropped from 9.4 percent in 2010 to 7.4 percent today.
Connecticut has a prominent place on many negative lists, especially those measuring business attitudes toward the state's business. Malloy reeled off some positive measures: home values are up, crime is down and the state ranks "nationally as top five in energy efficiency, top four in worker productivity, top three in the number of advanced degrees, top two in production efficiency, and number one in the health of its citizens."
A campaign talking point he will share with legislators -- the state has helped 1,000 small businesses with cheap capital and tax incentives to hire the unemployed -- was greeted with a standing ovation 20 minutes into his speech.
He introduced Emily Thomsen, a University of Connecticut student who studied biomedical engineering, as the beneficiary of the state's policies: She was hired by Oxford Performance Materials in South Windsor, which has expanded and hired a dozen employees with state assistance.
"Because of the people in this chamber, there are thousands more stories like Emily's across Connecticut," Malloy said.
Republicans have criticized the governor for his aid to large companies, including $71 million to CIGNA, a Fortune 500 company that has designated its Bloomfield campus as its corporate headquarters.
Without addressing those major awards, Malloy took issue with those who question the role of the state in supporting the expansion of private employers.
"I fundamentally disagree," he said. "A balanced approach that supports both workers and their employers is not only possible, it's the only responsible path."