MIDDLETOWN–A feisty Gov. Dannel P. Malloy parried challenges to his budget from the left and right Tuesday night at the last of his 17 town-hall meetings. But he concluded on a softer note, calling his two-month listening tour an exercise in personal growth for a new governor.

“I appreciate so many people across the state coming out and having this dialogue. I learned a lot,” Malloy said. “I’m going to reflect on it for a couple of days. I’m going to have some things to say about the things that I learned later this week.”

Malloy Middletown

Once more, facing questions and complaints.

“This has been good for me and my growth as a person, someone who aspires to be a good governor,” he said.

The note of humility was unexpected at the close of an often combative tour that took Malloy to every municipality with a daily newspaper to sell an unpopular mix of higher taxes, service reductions and demands for concessions from state workers.

And, indeed, it hardly reflected the tone of his valedictory effort in the auditorium of Middletown High School. One man was removed but not arrested by police as he tried to push to the front of the line of people waiting to pose questions to the governor.

“I have a right to speak!” the evictee yelled.

Police said the man, who appeared to be in his 60s, frequently disrupts local meetings.

“We’ve done 17 of these,” Malloy said, trying to settle the crowd after the outburst. “People have overwhelmingly been respectful of one another. Can we just try to wrap it up that way?”

The audience applauded.

He was not as accommodating of a woman who blamed the Democratic Party and illegal aliens for many of the state’s problems.

“It is your party that has made Connecticut the welfare haven of the western world,” the woman said. “I taught in Hartford for 15 years, and it’s a no-rules, no-responsibility welfare mentality that turned Hartford from the richest city in the U.S. to the poorest.”

“Are you going to stand for illegals, or are you going to stand for Americans?” the woman demanded.

Malloy has endorsed a proposal to charge in-state tuition at public colleges for all students graduating from high schools in Connecticut, regardless of immigration status.

“Are you done?” Malloy said, staring at the woman. “I’m going to stand up for children who graduate from our schools.”

Most of the crowd stood and applauded. The cheering continued for 24 seconds.

Applause for the boss

Applause for the boss from budget director Ben Barnes (l) and Timothy Bannon, chief of staff.

Malloy also faced challenges from opponents of any tax increases and from those who see his tax plan as failing to make the state’s top earners shoulder their share.

“Cut taxes, cut spending and the rest will follow,” one woman said, prompting chants of “Cut taxes! Cut taxes!”

Bill Buhler, a psychologist at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, said a strong middle-class will be the bedrock of the state’s recovery, and Malloy’s tax plan falls too heavily on that group.

“With all due respect, I understand where you are coming from. I understand. You are a state employee, and you are worried about the future of the state,” Malloy said. “And you have a point to make that you want other people to pay for the difficulties.”

But Malloy said his plan shares the pain and preserves state aid to municipalities. By contrast, he said, New York and New Jersey are gutting local aid, and New York is cutting taxes on its wealthiest taxpayers.

“We’re not cutting those taxes, so I’m having a hard time understanding exactly what you believe is the point you think you are making,” Malloy said.

The governor’s oft-repeated skepticism about SustiNet, a health-care program intended to put Connecticut on the road to universal health care, also prompted several sharp exchanges. Speakers urged him to take another look at a plan that Malloy says the state cannot afford.

Paul Wessel of Connecticut Parent Power, an advocacy group affiliated with the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut, told Malloy he appreciated his support of early childhood education, but he pressed the governor for a meeting on SustiNet.

Malloy replied he has had many meetings on SustiNet, including one the previous day, an apparent reference to a meeting he had with House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, a backer of SustiNet.

“Does that mean you’re not going to sit down with us, or you are?” Wessel asked.

“Right now? Tonight? No, I’m not,” Malloy replied.

“Soon? Next week or two?” Wessel pressed.

“It really depends on what level of progress people who are having those discussions make,” Malloy said.

“All right, we’ll keep reaching out,” Wessel said. “Great, thank you very much.”

Not all speakers confronted the governor. Lea Tomaszewski, a member of the Middletown Republican Town Committee, suprised Malloy, the first Democratic governor in 20 years, by inviting him to the local GOP’s next meeting.

He smiled.

Later, she asked him to pose with her for a photo. He complied, then warned: “You know, this is going to get you kicked out of the Republican Party.”

The city’s Republican mayor, Sebastian N. Giuliano, who has accused the Democratic council of long relying on fiscal gimmicks, said he appreciated the governor’s refusal to balance his budget by deferring pension contributions or borrowing.

“Ultimately, chickens come home to roost,” Giuliano said. “I emphathize.”

The governor has yet to share what he has learned on his budget road trip he began shortly after proposing his budget Feb. 16, but he reiterated Tuesday night that he will not raise taxes above the $1.5 billion he proposed, even if concession talks with state employees fail to yield his goal of $1 billion.

But he is likely to bow to calls for a more progressive tax structure, though he appears intent on not raising the top rate higher than the 6.85 percent that takes effect in New York next year. He has proposed a top rate of 6.7 percent, which he says will help the state compete for jobs.

“I understand there are people who don’t agree. And I want to be as respectful as possible. But I want you to understand we can no longer afford to be on the losing side for another 22 years of job growth,” he said.

Connecticut is one of two states with no net increase in jobs in the past 22 years. The other is Michigan.

Before saying good night, Malloy reminded the crowd he took office in January, inheriting a deficit of at least $3.2 billion, one that he blames on a bad economy and years of fiscal gimmicks employed by a Democratic legislature and his Republican predecessors.

“I didn’t create this problem. I got hired to straighten it out,” he said. “I’m doing the best I can.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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