A civil night out for a governor defending a tough budget
BRIDGEPORT — State employees objected to his demands for concessions. Taxpayers questioned his common sense, along with his $1.5 billion proposed tax increase. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s town-hall meeting went as expected Monday night, with one exception. His standing-room audience was civil, if unhappy.
His security detail was attentive. One plainclothes trooper moved toward a speaker who mentioned — jokingly, it seemed – he came prepared to throw something at Malloy. But the vibe of the room was laid back, even as Malloy acknowledged a case of nerves at the start.
“I have to admit to you I’m a little nervous,” said Malloy, who is conducting 16 more of the town-hall style public meetings through April, when he hopes the legislature will be through picking over this budget. “This is the first one.”
Occasionally sipping from a white ceramic mug, Malloy seemed fatigued standing at a lectern for hour in the City Hall Annex, facing a crowd that Mayor Bill Finch generously estimated at 500. He opened with a 20-minute introduction about his budget proposal that his audience seemed to tolerate more than it absorbed.
They came to ask questions, not hear a reprise of his budget speech.
Robert MacGuffie, a Tea Party leader who was applauded as he introduced himself, was the most confrontational, asking Malloy why he proposed raising taxes rather than embrace the “ethic of self-reliance” demonstrated by Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey, Andrew Cuomo of New York and the new darling of the anti-tax movement, Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
Union activists, who came to object to Malloy’s demand for $1 billion in concessions and other labor savings, booed briefly at the mention of the Wisconsin governor, whose attempt to curtail collective bargaining rights of public-sector employees ignited days of union demonstrations outside the Wisconsin Capitol and raised concerns far beyond the Midwest.
“It is our belief and many of hundreds of thousands of us in the Connecticut conservative grass roots,” MacGuffie said, responding to the boos. To Malloy, he asked, “I would like to know why you do not embrace the strategy of liberating us from taxes, rather than increasing them.”
Malloy said he has proposed a budget that spreads the pain. He dismissed a comparison to New York and New Jersey.
“Our problem is substantially greater,” he said. “And what we need to do is have a multi-pronged approach to resolving that problem. You may not agree with me. I don’t think you are going to agree with me. But what I’m trying to present is a reasonable way in which we get our footing back. We draw a line. We establish our means, and we stay within them.”
He reminded MacGuffie that his budget calls for a $1.8 billion in spending cuts to complement his tax increases to erase a deficit of $3.2 billion left him by his Republican predecessor, M. Jodi Rell, and the Democratic legislature.
“Governor, the people and the businesses are leaving now. They are only going to be more so after this tax increase,” MacGuffie said.
Others were more charitable, even when they disagreed with Malloy. Jerry Cunningham of Stratford politely greeted the governor, complimenting Malloy on his eloquence in explaining the rational for his budget. But he left no doubt he found the proposed tax increase confounding.
“I think there is an old saying, when you are in a hole, the first thing you do is stop digging,” Cunningham said. Of the tax increase, he asked, “How can you propose that and have us take you seriously?”
Cunningham also objected to Malloy’s earned income tax program as a “handout.”
“I understand we disagree about this, sir,” Malloy said of the tax credit, which is meant to soften the blow for the working poor for having to pay a higher sales tax. “I’m not going to fight with you.”
Steve Brown of Oxford told Malloy that he was struck by the governor’s rationale for not hitting higher-income earners harder with his income-tax proposal: Malloy had said he did not want to punish success.
“How are we not to feel that middle-class families are not being punished for our success?” he asked, drawing applause.
Malloy replied that the higher-income earners saw a tax increase two years ago, when the legislature created a higher tax rate for incomes over $ 1 million. Malloy proposes raising the top rate again, by .2 percent.
The governor said the rich also are being taxed with a levy on luxury cars, clothes and jewelry. He wryly mentioned that his own suit and his wife’s car, a 2002 Buick, would not trigger the luxury tax.
Cunningham was one of the seemingly hostile speakers who approached Finch after the public hearing and asked that he extend his thanks to the governor for coming.
“I think people respect the fact he showed up,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, a senior adviser to Malloy. “They should object to what they don’t like, but they are doing it in a civil way.”
A few speakers spoke in riddles.
One man asked the governor to perform a math problem.
“I’m not going to play games with you,” Malloy said. “Is that your only question?”
Another man removed his false teeth to make a point lost on Malloy and the rest of the audience. He asked Malloy to look into a program.
“I’m only going to look into it if you put your teeth back in,” Malloy said gently.
The man popped his dentures in his mouth, smiled and replied, “Bless you, brother.”
Lora Rossomando, the president of the Stamford Teachers Association, complimented Malloy on his approach, but she fears that givebacks by teachers only will offset wasteful overhead and managerial expenses in her school system. How do unionized workers know that givebacks “won’t be frittered away?”
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Malloy said. “You try to do your best.”
None of the questions energized Malloy, whose voice was raspy, until Maria Vereb, a state social worker, stepped to the microphone and convinced Malloy to take one last query, even though the quitting time of 8 p.m. had been reached. She began to recite a long list of concessions that state employees made two years ago to Rell.
“Maria, is there a question in there?” he asked.
“Now, you are asking us to give back more, our 35-hour week, which means we are going to lose pay, three furlough days, three percent increase towards our retirement and many other things, in addition to what you are asking every resident of the state of Connecticut to give, increasing taxes,” Vereb said.
“Please, Gov. Malloy, don’t try to balance the state problems of the deficit on the backs of state employees. We didn’t create the problem,” she said. “We are citizens of the state and will do what everybody else has to do, but don’t double wham us.”
“Now, Maria, please stay there. Because I am very glad you asked the question,” Malloy said.
Malloy told her the biggest concession made two years ago was no concession at all: The unions agreed to a deferral of $300 million of state payments into an already underfunded pension fund. That so-called savings only pushed off a problem from the last governor to the new one, he said.
“That’s not a savings,” Malloy said. “It really isn’t.”
Addressing all state employees, Malloy asked her to consider the alternatives.
“Let’s say we don’t get any concessions. Do we raise the taxes $2.5 billion? Or should we cut another billion dollars out of the safety net?” Malloy asked. He waved her off, when she began to answer. The governor was making his closing remarks, not beginning a debate.
“You don’t have to answer me today,” he told her. “But I have to answer that kind of question, because if we take a billion dollars out of the safety net, there will be no safety net. If we take a billion dollars and just lay off employees, what good will that have done?
“This is not personal. I don’t want to hurt anybody. I was elected governor of a state that has a $3.2 billion deficit, and I’m trying to find the best course to balance that. And I think, honestly, that you’re part of the solution. And I don’t think that I’m a bad person for asking you to be part of that solution.”
He left to applause. He smiled at a reporter who approached him, but he took no questions, slipping out a back door with Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and staff.
The road show continues Thursday night in Torrington.
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