New Britain – In the first extensive public policy press conference of his second run for governor, Republican Tom Foley released an urban agenda Wednesday that echoes or revises long-tried policies on housing, crime and jobs, while imposing a strict “marketplace” standard on failing urban schools.
Foley, 62, a Greenwich businessman who was stunned by the decisive urban turnout in support of Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in their first race four years ago, pledged a year ago that he would compete in the cities by addressing urban issues after a period of conversation and fact-finding.
After campaigning largely on the economy and fiscal issues, which pollsters have found are by far the top priorities of Connecticut voters in 2014, Foley stood with five mayors in a pocket park outside city hall and pledged, “As governor, I’ll have no higher priority than making our cities great again.”
Foley read aloud what he called “a sampling of the plan,” but his campaign brought no copies, leaving reporters to attempt to download documents emailed to their smart phones as the candidate began reading prepared remarks. He encouraged reporters and voters to read the plan on line.
Democrats quickly responded by pointing to sections taken without attribution from three sources, including the Connecticut Policy Institute, the think tank Foley founded after losing the 2010 race to Malloy.
“Tom Foley not only lifted ideas that Gov. Malloy has either proposed or is already doing like urban job training and improving minority contractors. He also is so devoid of a specific thought or idea for urban communities he had plagiarize his ‘plan’ directly from out of state sources,” Mark Bergman, a spokesman for the Malloy campaign, said in a statement.
Foley’s campaign acknowledged drawing on others’ work, including a two-year-old report from the policy institute.
“The urban policy agenda released today is largely drawn from the work of the Connecticut Policy Institute, a think tank Tom Foley founded and he has said from start would be the foundation of his urban policy agenda,” said Mark McNulty, a spokesman. “Borrowing policy ideas from states that have successfully road tested new policy initiatives is not plagiarism — it’s smart.”
Foley’s plan also lifted sentences verbatim from a March 21, 2014 article in Heartland and a March 19, 2014 piece in the Pelican Post about crime initiatives in Louisiana. It focused on conservative states that are trying to reduce their incarceration rates.
The press conference was Foley’s longest, a departure for a campaign whose communication strategy has been to provide the candidate for interviews, while only sporadically publishing a public schedule of campaign stops.
He held no press conference on his previous policy statement, A Plan for Restoring Prosperity and Pride in Connecticut. It was released via an email sent shortly before his first debate with Malloy on Aug. 27.
Foley has run as a cautious front-runner, hoping to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with Malloy. A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows him up by six percentage points, with two-thirds of his supporters saying their preference represents displeasure with the incumbent.
Foley said he planned no similar public policy proposals before election day.
What’s not fair
“Connecticut’s future is no better than the future of our cities. And our cities are where good policy and effective government can make the most difference in people’s lives,” Foley said, reading an opening statement. “One of America’s fundamental promises is fairness and opportunity for everyone. It isn’t fair when over half of the children in our urban schools are not getting a decent education.”
Foley’s idea of increasing fairness on taxes is a proposed break in the car tax, a more modest version of plans proposed by Malloy and his predecessor, Republican M. Jodi Rell. He said he would use about $30 million in state funds to reimburse municipalities for a loss of revenue from capping the tax on cars and other personal property at 30 mills.
“The car tax is simply too high in our cities and distorts markets. People should be able to drive the kind of car they want to drive and can afford, and the car they own shouldn’t affect where they choose to live,” Foley said.
Foley, who has promised to freeze spending in his first budget, said a government with a $21 billion budget could absorb a $30 million increase. But if Foley’s estimate is correct, that elevates the value of tax cuts he has promised to $360 million.
He already said he plans to shave one-half of 1 percentage point off of Connecticut’s 6.35 percent sales tax rate, a loss of about $330 million in sales tax receipts.
The total cost of all his urban initiatives, which he says he would phase in as the budget allows, would cost less than $1 billion, Foley said. But the number seems low. Foley’s plan includes unspecified investments in “parks, waterfronts, and other public spaces,” as well as reducing mass-transit times “from our cities to other cities, including New York City.”
One major transportation project unmentioned in his plan was the busway between New Britain and Hartford, which will provide bus rapid-transit service, beginning next year.
Republicans have generally called it a boondoggle and Foley recently expressed skepticism about running it, but he said in response to a question that he would provide operational funding for at least two years to see if establishes a ridership.
Foley said the biggest surprise in his fact-finding mission was learning of the difficulty that ex-offenders have finding employment.
He said he was inclined to support proposals to bar employers from using a criminal record as an initial screen on job applicants. Using language taken from the Heartland article, his plan also would “promote civil liability protections” immunizing employers “who hire ex-offenders from being sued on that basis alone.”
One of his urban job initiatives would be making a request of every large employer to “fairly distribute their jobs among varied communities.” He also would seek preference for local and minority contractors, forms of which already are in place.
His approach to underperforming schools
Foley was most specific on taking a tougher approach to underperforming schools.
The GOP nominee would mandate that parents in struggling schools be allowed to move their students anywhere within their local school systems, with money following the child, a boon for well-run schools and a punishing loss of resources for inferior schools.
“What I’m hoping is that when you have in-district public school choice and money follows the child that the marketplace starts to exert pressure on schools to perform better,” Foley said. “So, right away, that schools are on notice that if I’m governor, I’m going to try to make sure this gets passed and implemented, so if they should start trying to be better schools right away, to the extent they can.”
The policy of “money follows the child” is opposed by teachers’ unions and school administrators, who say it leaves struggling schools without the means to improve. Computing exactly what money should follow the child presents its own challenges.
Foley, with some exceptions, would simply strip a school that loses a student of the per-pupil spending and send the money with the child to the new school. But per-pupil spending is computed by dividing overall costs – labor, supplies and utilities – by the number of students.
The departure of three students from a school with a per-pupil cost of $12,000, for example, does not save $36,000, since the school would have the same costs for staff and other overhead. Foley said the approach was good incentive for schools to improve.
“If they are not performing,” Foley said, “why should we be rewarding them with money and the ability to stay open, when parents don’t want their children there?”
Keith M. Phaneuf contributed to this report.