The major party candidates for governor both made the job much harder Wednesday, pledging to spare municipal schools from a $271 million drop in federal aid despite the largest projected budget deficit in state history.

Democrat Dan Malloy and Republican Tom Foley’s respective pledges drew a sharp rebuke from third-party gubernatorial candidate Tom Marsh, who accused both of his rivals at a Hartford forum sponsored by municipal leaders of promising the impossible to try to win a close race.

foley, marsh and malloy, 10-6-10

Republican Tom Foley (left), Independent Tom Marsh and Democrat Dan Malloy at the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (Keith M. Phaneuf)

The projected $271 million cut facing the Education Cost Sharing grant program “will be taken care of,” Malloy told a crowd of more than 500 that gathered for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities event at the Connecticut Convention Center. “It will not be pushed on your back.”

“I’m also committed to not reducing the state’s commitment to support education,” added Foley, who trails Malloy by just 3 percentage points according to the last Quinnipiac University poll.

The $271 million gap is tied to the federal emergency stimulus program. State legislators and Gov. M. Jodi Rell used that stimulus funding, which expires after this year, to keep ECS grants at just $1.9 billion, the same funding they received in 2009-10.

That $271 million shortfall is two-thirds greater than the single-largest annual increase in ECS history, a $180 million jump approved in 2007.

And with the next governor already facing a $3.3 billion deficit, according to nonpartisan legislative analysts, Marsh questioned how Malloy and Foley could take ECS off the table.

“There will be cuts,” he said. “I’m not going to falsely promise you’re not going to see a cut.”

Marsh, who is first selectman of Chester, urged municipal leaders both to question and to remember what was said at Wednesday’s forum.

“I’ve heard an awful lot of rhetoric,” he added. “We have to hold elected officials accountable for the rhetoric we hear today.”

Both Foley and Malloy offered several options to mitigate the pain cities and towns will feel as the next governor tries to close a deficit greater than 17 percent of all current state spending.

Malloy, a former mayor of Stamford and past president of CCM, stopped just short of pledging to spare the entire $2.8 billion municipal grant component of the state budget from any cuts.

“We cannot do it (balance the budget) by shifting additional expenses onto your backs,” he said, but added after the debate that this statement reflected his goal of avoiding reductions in town aid, and not a pledge to spare all non-education grants as well as ECS.

Foley told municipal leaders that while he would protect education, government spending at both the state and local level needs to shrink if the deficit is to be closed. “Ultimately, solving this problem is going to mean the state working with communities to figure out how to do more with less” he said.

Malloy has repeatedly charged Foley, a Greenwich businessman, with being dishonest for pledging to eliminate the entire budget deficit without any tax hikes. The former mayor has not proposed specific tax increases but has acknowledged that tax hikes likely would play a role in balancing the budget.

But Malloy told municipal leaders Wednesday that Foley effectively was proposing tax hikes, likely worth thousands of dollars to property taxpayers in urban areas, by making a pledge that cannot be fulfilled without effectively gutting all municipal grants.

“Understand, you are shifting (the deficit) to the people in this room,” Malloy said.

Foley argued that Malloy “sold his soul” to state employee unions to win the Democratic gubernatorial primary, and that state and local government both can cut spending dramatically if they look at labor.

The GOP nominee, who already has said he will seek major concessions from state employee unions, said Wednesday he would support changes to the state’s binding arbitration system to help municipalities control unionized worker salaries as well.

All three candidates said they would work to reduce unfunded mandates on cities and towns, and to support expanded taxation powers for communities or grant them a new share of state tax revenues.

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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