Legislators never stopped high-stepping for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last year. The first-year governor chose the course and set the pace, hectoring lawmakers to meet his goals and timetable. To a remarkable degree, they did.
Now, legislators are pushing back, signaling that their capacity for controversy and change fall short of the always-in-a-hurry governor’s, especially in a year when they face re-election and Malloy does not.
“This year, there is a little less gas in the tank,” said House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden.
Malloy has heard the message. But opinion is mixed on whether he has changed his approach to the legislature, whose session lasts only three months in even years. Those who are undecided include the governor.
“I think it is a fair question, and I think it is as yet undetermined. I’ve never been governor in one of these short sessions,” Malloy said. “I think I’m starting to appreciate that a lot of folks think that only heavy lifting should be done in a long session. Now, I don’t have enough time for that.”
Even some Democratic legislators who admire the Democratic governor for his energy, drive and ambition were bruised last year by a my-way-or-the-highway vibe. Sharkey, an ally of the governor’s, casually used the word “bully” in describing how Malloy was seen last year — and how the relationship between the executive and legislative branches is on a healthier footing this year.
“I think the governor has been good this year, better this year than last, frankly, about not playing the role of the bully and insisting that everything has to go his way,” Sharkey said. “The interaction is a lot better this year.”
Democratic legislators haven’t fallen in behind the governor on his education reforms and his wholesale rewriting of liquor laws, topics that have roiled unionized teachers and well-organized package store owners.
“Right now, nothing is written in stone,” said Rep. Andrew M. Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the Education Committee. “We’re trying to work out the best possible reform package.”
Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, co-chairman of the General Law Committee, whose purview includes liquor laws, said his committee would not be constrained by any deals negotiated by the administration and industry.
“He has the right to do it, but there is a separation of powers. I don’t care what the lobbyists negotiated,” Doyle said. “I care about what the legislators think. Now, it’s up to the legislators to decide.”
They say their comments signify an insistence on give and take with the administration, not rebellion. As they did last year, the Democratic majority wants the first Democratic governor in 20 years to be successful.
But they say they are less inclined this year to reflexively follow.
“I think you are seeing now the legislature is pushing back a little more, wanting to really fully vet some of these ideas,” Sharkey said. “Some of the ideas that started at the beginning of the year, like online gaming, have been withdrawn.”
The governor floated the possibility of exploring some form of online gambling, as well as an expanded lottery. But no new gambling was proposed after the ideas found no audience among legislators.
“I sense an administration that is a lot more nuanced and supple in its responses to the legislature in general,” said Fleischmann, one of the committee co-chairmen who found the administration heavy-handed last year.
It was a year ago this month when administration officials began pressuring committees to report out the governor’s bills intact, even when lawmakers disagreed with them.
Fleischmann’s committee refused to approve Malloy’s proposal to transfer control of state vocational schools to local or regional school boards. The idea was abandoned.
“Members of the administration now joke about it,” Fleischmann said of the push to approve the governor’s bills without change. “They acknowledge it was a mistake, and they underscore there will be no repeat of that episode.”
House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said he sees little difference from the administration its dealings with the legislature.
“They still proceed in my opinion as they did last year in substance and attitude,” Cafero said. “I think I am seeing a difference from the majority party.”
“From our perspective, I haven’t seen much of a change,” said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield.
Malloy ended his first year with a special session on jobs. After a regular session in which nearly every major issue was resolved with party-line votes, Malloy and legislators negotiated a bipartisan package of economic-development measures in October.
Republicans said they offered to work with Malloy in a similar vein on education reforms. Cafero said he sought out the governor after Malloy outlined his education goals in the State of the State speech on Feb. 8, opening day of the session.
“I wanted to go personally and see him in private to congratulate him on a very good speech, well-written and well-delivered. I said, ‘I think we can work together on a bipartisan package. We will have your back.’ Those were my words,” Cafero said.
Cafero said he has seen little evidence so far of a bipartisan approach, and he hears grumbling from Democrats that the administration still expects its lead to be followed.
“I remember one time he said to me, when I mentioned a House debate, ‘I don’t watch that stuff.’ Like it doesn’t matter. You have that attitude, at some point it catches up to you. They are not going to say that,” Cafero said of Democratic legislators. “But I can.”
Democrats are more upbeat on their relationship with the governor, but a few acknowledge the administration still exhibits occasional tone-deafness.
Key lawmakers were caught unawares by proposals to change how art grants are awarded, shifting the aid from legislative earmarks to a competitive system run by the executive branch. The change was an unintended affront to Rep. Toni Walker and Sen. Toni Harp, two New Haven Democrats who are co-chairwomen of the Appropriations Committee.
Walker said the executive-legislative branch relationship continues to evolve.
“There are certain things I try to help them understand,” Walker said of the administration. “There are a lot of things I think we should have talked about.”
Mark Ojakian, a senior aide who took over as chief of staff in January, said every committee chair has his or her own style, and every committee has its own dynamic. The administration is trying to respect those styles and differences.
“My role as chief of staff is to make sure those relationships are fostered to the best degree possible, but also to promote and move the governor’s agenda,” Ojakian said.
On Friday, Ojakian said he was awaiting word from the General Law Committee’s leadership about the panel’s latest thinking on the administration’s proposal to end the ban on Sunday liquor sales and loosen restrictive laws on price and competition.
“We’ll figure where they are and continue to have a dialogue,” Ojakian said.
Doyle, the co-chairman of General Law, said that however the committee massages the governor’s proposal, the liquor issue is evidence of the degree to which the governor still is setting the agenda.
In this election year, the committee had no intention of undertaking a major liquor bill, including a repeal of the ban on Sunday sales. Malloy changed that with a news conference in January.
“Out of the blue, his bill came up. And it changed everything,” Doyle said.
The administration was more deliberate on its top issue: education reforms. Malloy told legislators last summer that it would be a priority, and top administration officials have been regularly consulting with legislators, Fleischmann said.
“I don’t mean to say our governor has become some kind of pushover,” he said. “He is a very forceful advocate for the positions he takes, and he does highlight areas where he expects movement and wants movement.”
No one expects Malloy to overcome his sense that Hartford moves too slowly, that state government is not as responsive as it should be. When talking about his goals and timetables, he all but fidgets.
“I do have aggressive agendas. And I understand that tires people out. And they worry about election years, and all of that other stuff. But time’s too short. So, we’re going to continue to work very hard on what I think is an aggressive agenda about improving the state’s economy and its long-term ability to compete. If we don’t do this education thing, we don’t have a long-term ability to compete.”
Malloy was the mayor of Stamford for 14 years. He is the first Connecticut governor since Thomas Meskill, who was elected in 1970, who did not serve in the General Assembly, at least briefly. He is the first since Chester Bowles, who was elected in 1948, without experience as a legislator in either Hartford or Washington.
He insists he is trying to learn the ways of the legislature, but he leaves no doubt that he also expects the legislature to learn and adjust to the ways of Dan Malloy.
“We’re trying to be cognizant of people’s feelings, trying to be cognizant of tradition, even while we’re trying to change it and certainly understanding that working with me is a little like trying to drink out of a fire hydrant,” Malloy said. “It takes some adjusting.”