He is the first Connecticut governor in 40 years without legislative experience, but Gov. Dannel P. Malloy dominated a productive first session that ended at midnight Wednesday, defying expectations that a fiscal crisis would mean gridlock stretching into summer.
Malloy struck a mildly celebratory tone early today in marking the end of a legislative session that yielded him an unbroken string of victories, then called for a special session next fall on job creation and asked for education reform to be the focus in 2012.
“In the legislative session that just ended, we made some real progress on some important issues, and we began to fix what was broken for so long in Hartford,” Malloy said. “We should feel good about what we did, but we should also be mindful of how much more there is to do.”
Malloy made a mark his first session with a hyperkinetic style, constantly making demands for quick action on his initiatives and working restlessly to shape the emerging narrative of his young administration, one that broke with other governors by proposing and passing a record tax increase to erase a deficit.
When the legislature dispatched a ceremonial escort to bring him into the House chamber for a closing speech, a tradition that his predecessor, M. Jodi Rell, eschewed in her final years as governor, the joke was that he already was waiting at the door.
Malloy, who defended his budget with a series of 17 town-hall style meetings, said he is going back out on the road, this time to brand his administration as focused on economic development, a recognition that the state’s unemployment remains above 9 percent. He said he and his commissioner of economic development, Catherine Smith, will crisscross the state.
“Here’s what we need to focus on now: jobs. It’s an emergency, and we need to continue to treat it as such,” Malloy said. “To that end, I am marshaling the resources from every corner of state government by asking all agency heads to participate in a tangible way with plans for job creation and economic growth.”
Working with Democratic majorities led by two men who backed his opponent in a Democratic primary, Malloy won passage of a difficult budget with relative ease, followed by a series of major initiatives: a new energy department, an $864 million project to remake the UConn Health Center, and a new airport authority.
From fiscal to social issues, including a transgender rights bill and the nation’s first state mandate on private employers to provide paid sick days, Malloy prevailed throughout the five-month session that opened with his inaugural Jan. 3 as the first Democratic governor in 20 years.
The governor touched lightly on all the major bills.
“I mentioned all of your accomplishments not as a shared victory lap, but as acknowledgement of your collective hard work,” Malloy said. “But as much progress as we’ve made, in some ways our work has just begun.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, pronounced the session a success born from the first time in two decades that a Democratic governor worked with a Democratic majority.
“The folks who were predicting gloom and doom about the legislative session back in December and January have to re-evaluate,” Williams said. “We were able to show with a united government we can get things done, and we can set a new direction for the state of Connecticut.”
Donovan said Connecticut, which began the year with a deficit estimated as high as $3.65 billion, has stabilized its finances with a minimum of disruption in state services.
“I think if you look across the United States, looking at the states that had problems, I would think anyone who looks at it would say Connecticut is probably the most stable of all the states, dealing with this deficit and moving forward,” Donovan said.
But the state’s largest business group, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, offered a dour view, worrying that the record tax increase would dampen economic activity, and that the paid-sick days bill would brand Connecticut as hostile to business.
Joseph F. Brennan, a CBIA vice president, said the hefty tax increase and the bill mandating most businesses with 50 or more employees to provide paid sick leave worked against progress Malloy made in other areas such as a new job creation tax incentives, a major investment in the University of Connecticut Health Center, and a new authority to market and operate Bradley International Airport.
“All of the economic development programs are fine,” Brennan said. “But you need to create a business climate that is conducive and welcoming, and what we are hearing from our members is Connecticut isn’t there right now.”
Brennan reserved judgment on the planned fall session on jobs, but gave Malloy high marks for pledging to work with all agency heads this summer to ensure all follow a consistent, pro-business agenda.
“A lot of little things can make a big difference,” Brennan said, adding that simply streamlining the process for issuing permits or conducting audits can assist businesses greatly. “We need all of the agencies pulling together and it was good to hear that.
Republicans were not as generous about Malloy and the session.
“It was historic in all the wrong ways,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk.
In one breath, Cafero conceded Malloy’s dominance and dismissed it.
“He got what he wanted,” Cafero said. “D’uh. Democratic governor, first time in 24 years. Ninety-nine of 151 reps are Democrat, 22 of 36 senators are Democrat. He got what he wanted. Is that a surprise?”
Though Malloy acknowledged a $1.6 billion question mark in the new budget — the concession package still pending before state employee unions — Republican lawmakers said the governor’s declaration of balanced state finances and an end to fiscal gimmickry was premature.
“We have an agreement that has yet to be approved, and we have an Office of Fiscal Analysis that has yet to affirm the savings,” said Sen. Robert Kane of Watertown, ranking GOP senator on the Appropriations Committee. “So, no, was can’t say the games are over.”
“Sadly we leave here tonight with many more unknowns than knowns in the budget,” added Sen. Andrew W. Roraback of Goshen, the top Senate Republican on the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.
Sen. Gayle Slossberg of Milford, one of the Democrats who opposed the budget compromise between Malloy and the legislature, said she remains optimistic that Connecticut’s economy is on the rebound and added, “I’m thrilled about the governor’s focus on jobs.”
But the governor’s call for a fall special session on jobs elicited a few groans, even out of his supporters, who conceded they are exhausted from the task of solving a $3 billion-plus budget deficit for the coming fiscal year.
“It is supposed to be a part-time legislature yet it has become very full-time,” Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, who as co-chairwoman of the Finance panel had to spearhead development of the budget’s tax package. “Still, it is our job, our responsibility. The governor is right.”