Gov. Dannel P. Malloy closed the annual session of the General Assembly early Thursday with a speech that attempted to reset the mood and message of an administration that struggled keep the breakneck pace of its first year.
With a 10-minute, 30-second speech delivered minutes after midnight, Malloy showed uncharacteristic touches of humility, even as he boasted of great progress since taking office 16 months ago in a state with a stagnant economy, an aging population and, in his view, a dour outlook.
“Over the course of the last 16 months we have pushed more change through these chambers than has occurred in Connecticut in a very long time — positive, meaningful change,” Malloy said.
Unemployment and crime are down, the state finally will allow the Sunday sales of liquor, and he and the legislature eventually agreed on education reforms, but only through a compromise reached with just days left on the legislative calendar.
Failure to deliver on education reforms would have been a political disaster, especially for a governor whose first year was an unbroken string of legislative victories. But Malloy said he was not declaring victory.
Aware that last year’s $1.5 billion tax increase did not completely erase the deficit of more than $3 billion he inherited upon taking office in January 2011, he cast the state’s finances as much improved, but not totally repaired.
“We’ve changed our state’s finances. We’ve closed the worst-in-the-nation deficit, and we are firmly committed to keeping our books honestly for the first time in a long time,” Malloy said.
On another night, at another time, that would have been an applause line.
But Malloy was interrupted with applause only as he offered praise to departing legislators, focusing on Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, the oldest member of the General Assembly, and House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, who is leaving to run for Congress.
The governor ran through the list of changes on his watch, careful to share credit with his audience.
“We’ve changed our blue laws to bring us in line with our neighbors — and we’ve begun the process of making our liquor laws more consumer-friendly,” he said.
Left unsaid: Malloy wanted more, but the legislature rejected his call for the abandonment of price controls. Still, the ban on Sunday sales was dropped only because he demanded it, as a convenience for consumers and a way to capture some lost Sunday sales to New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
“We’ve changed our election laws — and in the process we are making it easier for people to participate in our democracy,” he said. But Malloy ignored the passage of a campaign finance disclosure law that his legal counsel challenged as unworkable and possibly unconstitutional.
“We’ve changed the way that we respond to major weather events — and in the process, the state and its utilities will be better prepared to handle emergencies.”
The latter was approved only hours before Malloy spoke, despite bipartisan support. The late approval, however, was due to legislative horsetrading, not problems with the administration.
“We’ve made more intelligent changes to our criminal justice system — and in the process we have continued to restore confidence in the system’s accuracy and fairness,” Malloy said. “Those changes are part of the reason crime is at its lowest rate in 44 years.”
When he talked about the education reforms, he again was careful to credit the legislature, even though his fellow Democrats balked at Malloy’s original proposal to limit the role of unions in troubled schools, an idea largely rejected in the legislature.
“And now, thanks to votes you made over the past few days, we’re changing our public school system,” he said. “We’re putting more education dollars into our lowest performing districts, something almost no other state is doing — and we’re ensuring that those dollars will be spent wisely.
“We’re creating a thousand additional seats for young children to have a chance at pre-kindergarten learning experiences. And we’re recognizing and supporting our teachers, administrators, parents and students in ways they’ve been asking us to do for years.”
Malloy acknowledged the difficulties in reaching passage.
“That’s a lot of change. It’s required a lot of tough decisions to be made. Along the way, I have to admit, it’s ruffled a lot of feathers. That’s because change is hard,” Malloy said. “Let me say it again: change is hard. But change is also necessary. While the world changed, and while states around us changed, Connecticut failed to make the changes it needed to.”
Malloy said that is no longer the case. But the governor whose favorite adjectives are big, bigger and best toned down the rhetoric about his own administration, at least for the night.
“Before my friends on either side of the aisle get nervous, let me say that I’m not declaring victory or suggesting that our work is done. Far from it,” Malloy said. “But just as it would be a mistake to declare anything resembling victory, it would also be a mistake not to acknowledge how much good work has been done in the past 16 months.
“You should be proud of what you’ve accomplished, but we should all remember how much more work there is to do.”