When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was announcing budget cuts in mid-July that would close prisons, courts, group homes, and agency offices, cut dozens of academic and social service programs, and eliminate 6,500 jobs, he said he couldn’t be dissuaded by union leaders scrambling to breathe new life into a dead concession package.

Connecticut’s chief executive insisted that while he preferred concessions over deeper cuts to balance the budget, he would proceed with the latter until the moment a new deal might be ratified.

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A vo-tech student at Capitol protest of program cuts: Sports were saved, but not arts

But with less than two weeks left before unionized state employees finish a second vote on a concession package, the administration backed off last week on implementing several controversial cuts, including cancellation of sports programs at vocational-technical schools and closure of eight remote sites for the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Malloy’s supporters  say he remains determined both to balance the budget and continue to offer himself as a partner with–and not an enemy of–state employees. The cuts postponed last week, one senior aide said, were relatively few and delayed either to save money or to accommodate concerns of the general public without creating new costs.

But the Democratic governor’s critics said this softening of his mid-July hard line exposed the alternative cuts as a unfeasible scare tactic,

“It is becoming very clear that the governor doesn’t have, and never had, a legitimate Plan B budget should the unions not ratify the agreement,” Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, said Friday. “I don’t know if it costs him (union ratification) votes, but for anyone who’s studying what’s going on … the only conclusion you can reach is that the governor is not serious about these spending cuts.”

Besides delaying DMV closures and reversing plans to end sports programs at the vo-tech schools — and insisting savings must be found someone else in the school system — Malloy also delayed shutdown of the Connecticut River ferry service until after the union vote.

And some state group home workers serving the developmentally disabled will be kept on the job past their layoff notice period, presumably to await the union vote results.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, compared Malloy to a soft-hearted parent who imposes a punishment then relents just before it has to be served.

“The governor likes to project a very unequivocal image: ‘I’m a man of action. I’m in charge and this is what I’m going to do,’” Cafero said. “But when you look at the evidence, it is anything but that.”

The House GOP leader noted that immediately after the concession vote failed in mid-June, Malloy talked boldly about ordering 7,500 layoffs. His alternative budget-balancing plan one month later eliminated funding for 6,560 jobs. And the governor’s office announced this week that it nearly has wrapped up issuing Executive Branch layoff notices, falling about 600 short of mid-July estimates.

But Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, a longtime labor advocate who nonetheless chastised unions for voting down the concessions in June, said those who doubt Malloy’s ability to make hard choices will be surprised.

“I think the governor is very sincere,” said Prague, who co-chairs the Labor and Public Employees Committee. “I think what the governor is saying to the unions is, ‘Look, I need your help. I would rather work with you, but if I don’t get your help, these cuts have to be made.’”

Prague added that “I would hope that they would appreciate that, because these cuts are horrific.”

“It’s very clear that the governor is trying to be reasonable,” Democratic State Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo said, noting that the some of the changes Malloy ordered give residents an extra week or two reprieve before services are disrupted. “It costs nothing to wait and see what happens over the next week to 10 days.”

The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, which represents all 15 state employee unions, have estimated that the second vote on the concession deal should be completed by about Aug. 15.

Union leaders have been relatively single-minded since announcing on July 22 an understanding with Malloy to hold a second vote.

As various bargaining units have demonstrated against some of the alternative cuts, labor leaders haven’t speculated on their likelihood, arguing only that these reductions are real — and would be catastrophic.

“We need an agreement to protect state employees’ jobs for the sake of the students we serve,”  Ed Leavy, an English teacher and an official with the local representing most vo-tech school faculty said during a demonstration against the sports program cut last week outside Bullard-Havens Technical High School in Bridgeport. “Without it, hard-working teachers, coaches, social workers, support staff, and school maintenance workers will be on the unemployment line.”

Hilary Phelps with one of the community college locals and director of the child care center at Middlesex Community College, said during a demonstration Friday that the alternative to concessions, “closing vital programs and shutting down essential services like our child care center, is bad for everyone.”

Malloy’s senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, said good government and smart finances were behind the decision to delay the DMV closings. The administration estimates it could cost up to $500,000 to shut down and then potentially re-open these remote sites.

“The governor has a very workable Plan B,” Occhiogrosso said Friday, adding that keeping the facilities open an extra week or two would not keep the administration from achieving savings in the DMV budget if concessions aren’t granted. “What he isn’t interested in doing is wasting money.”

Occhiogrosso also said the governor always preferred not to cut the sports programs at the vo-tech schools, and expects the system to find savings elsewhere.

As for Malloy’s Republican critics, the governor’s senior adviser said “these guys will oppose anything the governor does … because they want to bring him down.” As far as Plan B, “the governor is fully prepared to go down that road — if he has to.”

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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