Gov. Dannel P. Malloy brought the 2013 session of the General Assembly to a close minutes after midnight Wednesday with a seven-minute speech that framed a difficult session as a success, an assessment the Republican minority already is contesting with an eye toward the 2014 election.
Malloy, the first Democratic governor in 20 years, opened by invoking somber memories of the Sandy Hook school massacre that claimed 26 lives on Dec. 14, instantly transforming Connecticut’s political agenda — at least for three months, the time it took to craft and adopt a bipartisan package of gun control legislation.
“It seems hard to believe that more than five months have passed since this legislative session began,” Malloy said, delivering the speech that traditionally closes every session of the General Assembly. “I think back to that cold day in January when we came together to begin our work, all of us still reeling from the worst tragedy we could imagine.”
Malloy, whose audience included at least two potential GOP opponents to his re-election, Senate Minority Leader John McKinney and House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., acknowledged the rarity of the bipartisan response as he talked about the continuing debate on guns.
“The debate on gun violence in America is by no means over,” Malloy said. “We still have much work to do. But we did make progress here in Connecticut. We accomplished these things. And by and large, we did them together on a bipartisan basis.”
Legislators applauded, one of the few times they interrupted his speech.
The governor quickly pivoted to the issues likely to dominate his re-election campaign.
“We knew coming into this session that there were many debates on the horizon, challenges that needed to be dealt with if we were going to continue the progress made in our state over the past two years,” Malloy said.
The governor glossed over the one-shot revenues he relied on to balance the biennial budget, a spending document he hopes will get him past the next election without having to make further cuts or raise more revenue. He talked about progress in tough times.
“We knew that we had to build on our unprecedented economic development agenda, and we did – by passing an historic investment in our state’s flagship university,” he said. “Next Generation Connecticut will usher in a transformational era for the university, one where we get the best and brightest in our state prepared to compete for 21st century jobs.”
He talked about energy reforms, but he said nothing of one idea blocked by House Democrats: his proposal to auction off rights to serve 800,000 electric customers, which he had hoped would raise $80 million. He succeeded in rewriting the rules for buying renewable energy, to the dismay of some environmentalists.
“We knew that we had to tackle our state’s energy challenges, and we did. Working together, we took great steps toward our goal of cleaner, cheaper and more reliable energy,” Malloy said.
The last six words will be 2014 talking points.
He mentioned raising the minimum wage, usually a safe applause line in a legislature dominated by Democrats. But there was little reaction.
“We knew we had to keep our commitment to our cities and towns, and we did,” Malloy said. “For the third year in a row, we are holding cities and towns harmless, so that nothing we do here will add to their property tax burden.”
Malloy clashed with urban mayors during the session over his plan to change funding formulas in a way that would have given the mayors less discretion. In the end, the formulas were left largely unchanged.
The governor reached out to the grass-roots groups that forced him and House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, to accept changes in a labeling bill on genetically engineered foods.
“We wanted to continue our push to improve public awareness, and we did. Thanks to your activism, we are the first state in the country to pass legislation that will ultimately require the labeling of GMOs,” he said, referring to genetically modified organisms.
He didn’t mention the budget until the end of his speech.
“No budget is perfect, but let’s be clear – this budget gets the big things right,” Malloy said. “This budget was done on time. This budget refuses to kick the can down the road and properly funds our state pension obligations, saving us billions of dollars over the next 20 years.”
The legislators witheld their applause until Malloy said the budget invests in jobs and education — “and contains no new taxes.”
The governor was rewarded with applause again as he tried out a line that will be important to his re-election, an insistence that the state is finally adding jobs on his watch after two decades of no net increases.
“As we work to reinvent ourselves, we have created more than 26,000 private sector jobs — the highest rate of private sector job growth over a two-year period since the late 1990s,” Malloy said. “We still have a long way to go, but we are making progress.”