Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, exchanged pointed Valentine’s greetings over what Cafero says was a curious element of Malloy’s budget proposal: Only his city faces a net loss in education aid.

Hmmm, how to view this? A little gesture from a Democratic governor toward a nettlesome GOP leader, perhaps? Or the removal of a political plum for Norwalk tucked into the books five years ago?

First, a bit a background. Education funding formulas often are massaged to get a desired outcome. For reasons of policy or politics or a combination of the two, it is not unheard of to set an aid number and then reverse-engineer a formula to produce the desired result.

In 2007, Cafero was seeking more money for Norwalk.

Like other Fairfield County pols, including the governor’s present general counsel, former Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, Cafero felt that the main state aid program, Education Cost Sharing, penalized Norwalk and Stamford, because of their relatively healthy tax bases, even though their schools face ample challenges.

Rather than tweaking the ECS formula, a provision was inserted in state law that required the state to provide $650,000 to the sixth-largest city, which just happens to be Norwalk.

OK, now jump ahead to today.

Cafero issued a press release Tuesday afternoon that accused Malloy of breaking his promise not to cut education aid, saying Norwalk was going to lose $72,000 under the budget the governor proposed last week. It made no claims of political retribution.

“For whatever reason, Norwalk is the only municipality in Connecticut that gets penalized under the governor’s plan,” Cafero said. “The Norwalk delegation members will work together, Republicans and Democrats, to correct this mistake.”

Fairly gentle stuff from the quotable Cafero, though an aide acknowledged that it was hoped that the Capitol press would connect the dots and impute a political motive on the governor’s part.

The administration’s response was neither gentle, nor subtle. Issued by Roy Occhiogrosso, it went right to the provision inserted in state law in 2007, saying it was the result of a deal between Cafero and Malloy’s Republican predecessor, M. Jodi Rell.

“The provision Rep. Cafero is referring to came about as part of a back room budget deal he cut with Gov. Rell. As a result of that deal, he was promised that Norwalk would be treated differently than the other 168 cities and towns,” Occhiogrosso said. “What he promised in return is a question you’ll have to ask him.”

Cafero’s staff says the only deal that was cut was with James Amann, then the Democratic speaker of the House. One does not insert plums for anyone into legislation on the say-so of a Republican governor, not with the legislature controlled by Democrats.

(In 2007, by the way, Rell and Cafero were barely speaking. Cafero helped rally opposition to an income tax increase proposed by Rell to boost education funding, which doesn’t seem to be a sound basis for Rell’s cutting a backroom deal to benefit Cafero.)

Amann told the Mirror today he vaguely recalled negotiations over how to squeeze out more education aid for Fairfield County towns. How Norwalk came to be the only beneficiary, he does not recall.

However the deal was cut, it is not defensible, Occhiogrosso said.

“Why should one city, only one city, be given a grant in statute?” Occhiogrosso said. “What’s the rationale for it?”

The change was not directed at Cafero, he said.

“This isn’t about any single legislator,” he said. “This is about undoing a deal that shouldn’t have been done in the first place.”

Cafero is hardly the only political casualty of a funding cut to Norwalk. The city is represented in the Senate by Bob Duff, a Democrat who gave Malloy some timely support on his budget and tax package last year.

“The governor is a big fan of Sen. Duff,” Occhiogrosso said. “He cast some tough votes, and this office is grateful for that.”

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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