When Democrat Dan Malloy pledged to cut his staff by 15 percent if elected, did he mean the relatively small governor’s office, or the nearly 32,000 Executive Branch employees outside of higher education?

How does Republican Tom Foley really plan to close the largest budget deficit in Connecticut history – which looms just nine months away – without tax hikes?

With a series of televised debates set to begin Tuesday, the leading gubernatorial candidates have intensified their focus on each other’s campaign promises.

“It’s – I would say – borderline deceptive,” Foley said last week, referring to a recent commercial in which Malloy pledges to “cut his staff by 15 percent and the number of state agencies by one-third.”

The governor’s office, by itself, is one of the smallest components in the overall state budget, involving about $2.8 million out of $19.01 billion, or less than 1/50th of 1 percent. Outside of the governor, the office funds 31 positions, so a 15 percent reduction would equal about 4.7 staffers.

“I think most people seeing that ad would assume that is more than four-and-a-half people,” Foley said, adding he believes Malloy would be hard pressed to save more than $500,000 with a cut of that level.

“We’re going to run a tight ship,” Malloy said, adding his plans for cutting costs go beyond the governor’s office itself. But he did not offer specific job reduction levels across the Executive Branch or target particular agencies for elimination.

Foley faces his own credibility test. The Greenwich businessman continues to insist he can eliminate a $3.3 billion shortfall without tax hikes.

That equals about 17 percent of current spending and half of the all income tax receipts nonpartisan legislative analysts are forecasting for this year.

“That campaign is intellectually dishonest,” Malloy said. “Tom Foley is not stupid. It took a long time to dig our way into this deficit, and it’s going to take some time to dig our way out of this.”

The GOP nominee has said he’ll need only about $2 billion in annual spending cuts, because Connecticut can expect another $1.5 billion in tax revenue once it regains the 100,000 jobs in lost in the last recession. But most economists are projecting it will take another three or four years to regain those jobs and the next governor’s first budget plan is due in four months.

“What’s he going to do then?” Malloy said. “This guy is for nothing, against some things, and somehow he is going to create jobs … as if there is a magical wand he can wave.”

Foley, a Greenwich businessman who says he plans to bring his private-sector management skills to the governor’s office, also has said that it “wouldn’t take that much” to cut state health care costs by 15 percent.

As much as $1 billion annually could be saved through a combination of wellness programs, electronic record keeping, changes to the medical malpractice system, reducing unnecessary emergency room visits, allowing less-expensive out-of-state health plans into Connecticut, and increasing the use of community-based care for elderly and disabled people, Foley said.

But none of those are short-term solutions. And health insurance represents one of the fastest-growing components of the state budget. According to Comptroller Nancy Wyman’s office, health insurance costs for state employees and retirees have grown about 7 percent per year since 2008.

In some instances, the candidates spark controversy not with their comments, but with what they fail to say.

Malloy, who enjoys strong support from public-sector unions, has said he can reduce the number of state agencies by one-third.

But in terms of the state budget, Foley noted, not all agencies are equal.

Though state government has more than 60 agencies, only 17 oversee budgets of more than $100 million, and combined their allocations total more than $12.6 billion, or 66 percent of the entire budget. In contrast, another 35 departments, agencies or offices have annual budgets of less than $10 million each.

Malloy’s pledge “doesn’t mean you’re going to save any money at all,” Foley said. “You could just be combining agencies with no expense reductions. He needs to say whether he’s actually going to reduce expenses and if he is planning to eliminate agencies, he needs to tell people which ones.”

Foley faces a similar problem when it comes to education.

Given his plan to attack the budget deficit with record-setting spending cuts, Foley has been asked about his plans for the Education Cost Sharing system, a $2 billion grant program for local schools that comprises about 10 percent of the entire state budget.

Though Foley hasn’t taken a pledge – as Malloy has – not to cut ECS next fiscal year, his campaign has said on several occasions that budget reductions “should not be made at the expense of our children’s future.”

Does that mean ECS, which is currently being supported by $271 million in emergency federal stimulus funding that expires next year, is exempt from the budget axe under a Foley administration?

“He’s not really taking a pledge to hold people harmless on ECS,” Malloy said, adding that his opponent “clearly is willing to say anything, but nothing substantive.”

The first of the televised gubernatorial debates is Tuesday at 7 p.m. on Fox 61.

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Keith M. PhaneufState Budget Reporter

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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