As he prepares to lead the Democratic Governors Association into the 2016 elections, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy insists that the grind of Connecticut’s continuing fiscal crisis in no way has curbed his ambition or enthusiasm for governing.
He talks about his push for a “Second Chance Society” for ex-offenders and his intention to somehow coax the General Assembly into putting the state on a path to spend $100 billion on transportation over 30 years.
But the daily reality of governing in the first months of his second term is less about sweeping vision and big ideas than the prospect of a protracted and painful conversation with a restive General Assembly about what kind of government Connecticut can afford.
That conversation could begin as soon as this week as the Appropriations Committee, whose leadership makes no secret of its frustration with Malloy’s approach to them and the budget, makes its first revisions to the governor’s spending plan.
The carefully constructed narrative of his first term, when he opted for a record tax increase to resolve the largest per-capita budget shortfall in the U.S., was that state finances had stabilized and Connecticut was poised to soar economically after two decades without net growth in jobs.
Now, he faces a new budget shortfall of more than $1 billion – a far cry from the $3.6 billion gap he inherited in 2011, but still a crisis nonetheless. The emerging new narrative is built around the need to confront the challenges of right-sizing government in a period of slow growth.
In an interview, Malloy used a modest image to underscore his newfound embrace of a spending cap he previously did not hesitate to circumvent. He talked about a mechanical governor, a device that keeps engines from going too fast, consuming too much.
“Did you have a go-kart when you grew up, or a minibike? On a go-kart or a mini-bike, there is a little thing you can set. It’s called a governor,” Malloy said. “That’s what the spending cap is. It’s called a governor.”
He smiled, pleased with the play on words. It’s a pun that once would have been unimaginable for an ambitious, aggressive governor.
“I think we’re in an adjustment period,” Malloy said. “OK, this is not like other post-World War II recessions where everything comes roaring back and you get to five and six and seven percent growth rates. This is bump along, make progress every year, but you’re not going to be a high flyer.
“So, I think we’re in a period of time in which we’re going to have to examine less expensive ways of trying to provide services, put a cap on growth of government and maintain that cap. And as a result, make decisions about what’s really, really, really important.”
He says the search is on for a “new normal.”
The phrase suggests that he sees a significant portion of the $590 million in spending cuts he’s proposed for the next fiscal year as structural changes in government, not merely temporary belt-tightening to get through a difficult year.
“Is government cheap? No, it’s not going to be cheap. Are we in a pinch because we had slow revenue growth? Yeah, we are. That’s true. That’s going to resolve itself at some point. We’ll find a new normal, whatever that’s going to be,” Malloy said, sitting in his office at the Capitol. “And then you have to live within your means. I know that’s hard up here, but it’s necessary.”
Intended or not, the last line is a dig at a legislature tired of being lectured to by the governor.
As co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, was among the legislators of both parties who resented the chiding message Malloy chose to send the General Assembly through the press on April 2 after the governor read about House Democrats rebelling at his spending cuts in a closed-door caucus.
“Let’s get a budget. Let’s get it going. Let’s do our jobs,” Malloy said then. “Let’s stop bemoaning the situations we’re in and turn ourselves to the really hard work of finalizing a budget.”
Echoing complaints by House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, and leaders of the GOP minority, Walker and her co-chair, Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, say the administration has tried to dictate the framework of a budget, rather than engage in what they acknowledge will be a difficult conversation.
“When you choose to lead, it has a lot of responsibilities. And it’s not just getting up on top of a podium and picking up a microphone. It is also called nurturing your base,” Walker said. “It’s keeping them part of the conversation about what you have to do. And so what he has not done is have those conversations with us as equal members of this process. He’s basically talking down to us.”
The Appropriations Committee, which was been working through a series of bipartisan subcommittees to examine the impacts of Malloy’s proposed budget, will vote as soon as this week on revisions likely to force the administration to the bargaining table.
“To be a leader, it is tough, and nobody should think that it’s not. It’s not just getting up and giving your ideas. That’s not being a leader. That’s not what we’re looking for,” Walker said. “We’re looking for somebody to lead us. And we want him to engage with us. Some of us have good ideas, too.”
Sen. Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said if Malloy truly sees a need for structural change in the size of government, he needs to directly engage legislators on the question.
“We have to start to look at change that goes well beyond what we’re doing every year for the past — and I’m not blaming Gov. Malloy — I can go back and say every year for the past 20 years,” Fasano said.
So far, Malloy has viewed all Republican overtures on the budget with suspicion, noting they have criticized his cuts without proposing either sources of new revenue or alternate cuts.
And he has not wavered from one element of his first-term narrative: That Malloy, the first Democratic governor in a generation, still is coping with the failures of past administrations to properly fund pensions, retiree benefits and transportation infrastructure.
Malloy spoke wistfully of the boom years enjoyed by two Republican predecessors, John G. Rowland and M. Jodi Rell, for at least portions of their terms.
“I woulda had a hell of a lot of fun,” Malloy said. “It would have been a gas, you know. Five percent, seven percent growth rates. Boy, that’d be great. Let me assure you, I wouldn’t have wasted it.”