Gov. Dannel P. Malloy framed his budget proposal Wednesday as a blueprint for shared sacrifice that can return the state to economic vitality, even as he asks state employees for deep concessions and the public for higher taxes.
Malloy outlined about $780 million in concessions he is seeking, far short of the $2 billion he says the state needs over the next two years to avoid draconian cuts to the social-services safety net on top of $1.5 billion in higher taxes.
With a 37-minute speech that reached for rhetorical grace notes, Malloy delivered an ultimatum to state employees, albeit one offered politely, almost plaintively: Freeze wages, agree to furlough days and other concessions – or face thousands of layoffs.
“I don’t make these suggestions to be antagonistic. Just realistic,” said Malloy, who was elected last fall by half a percentage-point with the pivotal support of labor. “The alternative to the $2 billion dollar figure would require us to completely shred the safety net and lay off thousands of state workers.”
Malloy’s speech is the public opening of a two-way negotiation with legislators and state employee unions, as well as a sales campaign intended to bring public pressure to bear on lawmakers and labor to support his vision of difficult, yet necessary fiscal medicine.
By orchestrating the release of his tax plan and other key elements in previous days, Malloy’s advisers believe the governor was able to present make a nuanced case for difficult choices, instead of being overwhelmed by one headline: Malloy proposes $1.5 billion in new taxes.
“By pushing this stuff out in advance, he was was able to have more of a conversation,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, his political adviser.
The strategy worked to a degree: Rather than offered outraged quotes about taxes, Republicans praised the Democratic governor for presenting a starkly honest view of the state’s finances, as did liberal Democrats who might have been reacting in shock if hearing about wage concessions for the first time.
“He’s laid out a very realistic framework, and you have to give credit where it’s due,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk.
“In all my years in the legislature, I have not seen a budget delivered to the legislture that’s been closer to ready for action than what I saw today,” said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.
The leaders said Malloy was the first governor in at least a decade to propose a budget that did not rely on accounting gimmicks and one-shot revenue.
Malloy used the venue, the annual speech in the Hall of the House before a joint session of the General Assembly, in an attempt to engage the public. The speech broadcast live on television and some radio stations.
“The people of Connecticut are good, decent, hard-working people,” Malloy said. “I believe they are willing to make sacrifices, if they understand why they’re being asked to do so, and if they believe that Connecticut is serious about fixing what’s broken.”
Next week, he begins a series of town hall meetings around the state, the means to both promote his plan and to measure how it is playing outside the political environs of Hartford.
The backdrop for all his proposals, Malloy told the legislature, is the state’s dismal economic climate and its failure to generate significant job growth for 20 years. He is promising that politically difficult steps now, directed at taxpayers and labor, will return the dividends of jobs.
“Let me put it this way: From this day forth, state government will exist to help create jobs, not just to perpetuate itself,” Malloy said.
Malloy was elected with labor support, but he distanced himself from his allies at times, saying that he will side will those who wish to reform education and state government, an effort that will require flexible work rules and the loss of hard-won benefits.
“Too often over the years people have been labeled pro-reform or pro-teacher,” Malloy said. “I reject that false choice. I’m both — I’m pro-reform, as long as it doesn’t mean teacher-bashing, and I’m pro-teacher, as long as it doesn’t mean maintaining the status quo. We can’t maintain the status quo, and everyone in this chamber knows it.”
Malloy left no doubt he believes in an activists government, as a catalyst for business creation and education reforms and as a source of protection and opportunity.
“Our state’s budget can make the difference between hunger and hope for a family on the brink of homelessness; the difference between failure and opportunity for a child taking his or her first steps; the difference between despair and dignity for an aging senior; the difference between peril and security for anyone walking our streets or traveling on our highways,” he said.
But the governor’s message repeatedly returned to the need to create jobs.
“Without jobs, government’s resources will dry up, its programs will become exhausted, and the relief they provide will be temporary, to no lasting effect,” Malloy said. “Jobs, ladies and gentlemen, represent the light at the end of the budget tunnel. That’s why job creation drives this budget.”
Malloy described the challenges facing Connecticut as daunting, but he took care not to complain.
“I believe deeply that public service is an honor and a privilege, and I know you do, too,” he said. “But we are not here just to serve. We are here because we have a moral obligation to make this state a better place for our having lived and served in it. Yes, we are facing enormous challenges, but we also have an historic opportunity.”
Malloy ended with an appeal for help, saying he will consider all suggestions that meet with his basic principles of crafting a budget that it is honest, protects the vulnerable and sets a course for economic growth.
“I truly believe Connecticut’s best days are ahead. The tide is turning for us if we step up and work hard with courage and conviction. And I hope you agree. We are here for a purpose,” Malloy said. “This is our time to do what we were elected to do, to fix what’s broken once and for all. Please, join me in this effort.”