ICYMI: Our look at Connecticut politics and policy in 2015
It’s a long, lazy holiday weekend. You are politically minded, but you’ve already binge-watched the House of Cards. Maybe college bowl games aren’t your thing, even if one does pique your interest with a politically sounding name, the TaxSlayer Bowl.
You might have read Dave Barry’s year in review a week ago. The humorist concluded after only 51 weeks that 2015 was the worst year ever, due in no small measure to political events, none of which occurred in Connecticut.
So, here is the CTMirror.org’s take on that hoariest of journalistic conventions, the year in review. It’s a mix of the important, the interesting, the surprising and, perhaps, the little-noticed things we shared in 2015 from the world of politics and public policy in Connecticut.
Things like the nuances of assisted suicide and the question of how minds are changed on such a polarizing topic. Or a startling look at how rising sea levels are likely to affect the state’s rail system. Or an easy-to-use guide to the budget that shows where your tax dollars go.
We explained how the merger of the community colleges and four regional Connecticut State University campuses didn’t produce promised efficiencies. The system’s president resigned in August, the fourth leader to depart. Mark Ojakian, the governor’s chief of staff, became president. He talked to us in November about the system’s many challenges.
We told the story of UConn – where the public university gets and spends its money, who it enrolls, and how many it employs – in a series of 15 graphics. And how the next big thing in health care is a push to ensure people are getting actual care, now that insurance is available through the Affordable Care Act. It’s not as simple as you’d think.
General Electric’s threat to move its headquarters from Fairfield to another state prompted our look at the state’s business climate and how it is assessed nationally by 18 groups that rank such things. We disclosed in December that GE was engaged in a broader conversation with the governor about economic stability in a state with a sputtering cash flow, high per-capita debt and worsening pension obligations.
The state’s long-running Hartford school desegregation lawsuit, Sheff vs. O’Neill, may have reached a significant turning point: The state stunned the plaintiffs by suggesting in September that a judge end court oversight of desegregation efforts. No action was taken.
The Connecticut Supreme Court struck down the last vestiges of capital punishment. The legislature had abolished the death penalty prospectively, but let stand the sentences of 11 men already on death row. The court is revisiting the issue in a second capital case this month.
A federal appeals court upheld the central provisions of sweeping gun control measures passed in Connecticut and New York in response to the shooting deaths of 26 children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Malloy made national headlines last month by saying he would order police to use terrorism watch lists to screen gun buyers, but the feds have yet to give him access and he has not explained how he can unilaterally change a process set by state law.
The administration announced plans to close the controversial Connecticut Juvenile Training Center, though not until 2018. The Office of the Child Advocate released disturbing videos of confrontations between staff and children. We investigated and found that the Department of Children and Families had disciplined only two staff members in 12 months over seclusion and restraint techniques.
Want a deeper look at how kids end up at places like DCF? Grab a cup of coffee and settle in to read “The Long Reach of Childhood Trauma.” It’s long-form journalism, a special report on the link between childhood neglect, trauma and adversity to mental and physical diseases and disorders.
We shared an evening at UConn with a wistful Bill Clinton who took the stage to accept a human rights award, weighted with regret for the genocide he failed to stop as president, buoyed by hope for good works to come.
It was a year in which the Senate welcomed its first Asian member, Republican Tony Hwang of Fairfield, and House Republicans chose a woman, Themis Klarides of Derby, as their leader for the first time. The GOP elected a 36-year-old new chairman, J.R. Romano.
And in a place where it’s hard to keep a secret, Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, who won re-election without campaigning after sustaining a traumatic brain injury in 2014, electrified the Capitol on the first day of the session by walking into the Senate chamber to take the oath of office.
His surprise return threatened to overshadow Gov. Dannel P. Malloy‘s second inaugural and the ascension of Martin M. Looney, the long-serving Democratic senator from New Haven, to the top leadership post in the Senate.
Neither seemed to mind.
Fiscal challenges made news throughout the year, and that is where we begin.
A RECKONING ON THE BUDGET AND BUSINESS CLIMATE
On the bright side, the state Department of Labor reported in December that all the private-sector jobs lost in the Great Recession had been recovered, but the public sector was lagging, largely due to job losses at the two tribal casinos.
Malloy announced on New Year’s Eve that U.S. Department of Labor statistics show Connecticut experienced the sixth largest decline in unemployment over the past 12 months, dropping from 6.3 percent in November 2014 to 5.1 percent.
But Malloy began his second term as he did his first: Wrestling with another major budget shortfall – one that his budget director, Benjamin Barnes, infamously suggested might be evidence of a permanent state of fiscal crisis. The governor himself talked to us in April about a difficult search for the “new normal.”
The budget never left the news, not from the proposal Malloy delivered in February, to the version adopted in the final hours of the regular session in June, to the revisions passed three weeks later to quell a business outcry. And it didn’t stop there.
The governor announced in September he would use his executive powers, which allow him to cut most budget line items by up to 5 percent, to make emergency budget cuts. Less than three months after the budget was completed, the state already was looking at a projected deficit of $103 million.
Some of the cuts were reductions explicitly rejected by the legislature in the previous session, including Medicaid reimbursements to hospitals and social services. It would turn out the Malloy would need to go deeper, and he would need help from legislators.
Comptroller Kevin Lembo made it official on Sept. 30: The state ended the previous fiscal year with a deficit of $113.2 million, requiring the state to dip into its reserve fund to balance the books.
The General Assembly returned for a special session in December to pass a deficit-mitigation package, revise a new unitary tax that GE and other corporations said contributed to a hostile business climate and restore some funding to hospitals and social services.
Analysts say things could get worse: The projected budget gap is $2.3 billion over the next two fiscal years. In November, the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis projected a $552 million deficit in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2016. And finances were on pace the following year to run $1.72 billion in the red unless adjusted. That gap represents 8.5 percent of annual operating expenses.
A YEAR OF SECOND CHANCES
Eighteen months ago, which would you have deemed more likely in 2015?
A) Dannel P. Malloy, whose approval rating never got out of the 40s during his first term, beginning a second term as governor on Jan. 7.
B) Joseph P. Ganim, who resigned as mayor of Bridgeport in 2003 to serve seven years in federal prison on corruption charges, overwhelmingly being elected mayor again on Nov. 3.
C) John G. Rowland, the disgraced former governor who rebuilt his life as a popular radio host and inspirational speaker after a 10-month stay in prison 10 years ago, would be back in court in March, sentenced this time to 30 months in prison for obstruction of justice and electioneering violations.
D) All of the above.
All three happened.
Ganim’s victory in a Democratic primary over Mayor Bill Finch was awkward for Malloy, who made second chances for criminal offenders a second-term priority in 2015 and has more reforms on the table for 2016.
Malloy initially said Ganim was undeserving of the Democratic nomination. On election night, when he celebrated the election of his former counsel, Luke Bronin, as the mayor of Hartford, he indicated he would work with the new mayor of Connecticut’s largest city.
For his part, Ganim showed little sign of sensitivity about his criminal record. With a reporter trailing him in August, he advised a parolee how she could get back on the voting rolls, while former Sen. Ernest Newton, who also did time on a corruption conviction, looked on and also gave advice.
On election night, those applauding as Ganim took the stage to claim victory included an initially camera-shy Joseph Santopietro, a former Waterbury mayor also convicted in a corruption case. Santopietro told us, “Everybody deserves a second chance.”
Rowland, meanwhile, ended 2015 free on bail while he appeals his 2014 conviction.
MONEY IN POLITICS
The year began and ended with questions about the survivability of Connecticut’s system of publicly financed campaigns, a reform passed in 2005 in reaction to Rowland’s resigning in the face of an impeachment inquiry and federal investigation.
A cornerstone of the voluntary Citizens’ Election Program – a $100 limit on contributions to participating candidates – turned out to be toothless. A revision allowed donors to direct $10,000 checks through the state parties to publicly financed candidates.
Senate Democrats blocked an effort in 2015 by House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, and minority Republicans to limit the flow of money from the parties to campaigns.
The Connecticut Democratic Party, meanwhile, was accused by Republicans of circumventing a ban on state contractor contributions by supporting Malloy’s re-election with money from a federal account, to which contractors can legally contribute.
At year’s end, the State Elections Enforcement Commission was awaiting a judge’s decision on a motion to compel the party to produce documents and emails in response to an investigative subpoena. Democrats say federal law pre-empts the investigation.
The good news for those who see public financing as essential to clean elections is that a trial balloon about suspending the program quickly popped.
LET’S DO LUNCH
It was a so-so year for bipartisanship in Connecticut.
In January, sniping between Malloy and the legislature’s Republican minority leaders over the governor’s willingness to consider GOP budgetary suggestions yielded the Great Cafeteria Summit of 2015.
Klarides, the new House GOP leader, accepted Malloy’s invitation to lunch in the Legislative Office Building to talk about they might work together. The Democratic governor outlined a procedure for future meetings.
“If I want a meeting with you, I’ll pick up the phone and call you,” Malloy said.
Klarides did not object.
“If you want a meeting with me, you pick up the phone and call me,” Malloy said.
Again, Klarides did not object.
“I appreciate that, governor,” Klarides said. “I don’t think I disagree with almost anything that you say.”
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, who also became the leader of his caucus on the opening day of the session, was out of state on a family matter and missed the luncheon.
Fasano and Klarides did participate in bipartisan, end-of-year budget talks in preparation for a special session to reduce a projected deficit and ameliorate business complaints about the state’s tax structure, but in the end the GOP declined to support the package.
A CONFRONTATION OVER RACE
The communication protocol set by Malloy and Klarides was forgotten in May, when Republicans halted business in the House of Representatives for more than five hours to protest Malloy’s criticism of GOP members for opposing his plan to stop racially disparate drug sentencing, an element of his proposed “Second Chance Society” initiative.
Republicans say Malloy called them racist.
“He is trying to make like we don’t agree with him, we’re bad people. It’s shameful. It’s vile,” a furious Klarides said during an impromptu visit to the Capitol press room. “It’s your classic bully mentality.”
At issue was Republican opposition to Malloy’s proposal to repeal stiffer penalties for drug possession within 1,500 feet of a school or day care, which exposes most urban drug defendants to enhanced sentences. A majority of those charged are minorities.
“To treat those folks differently because they live in those communities is patently unfair and, if not racist in intent, is racist in its outcome,” Malloy said.
Malloy made his own appearance in the press room. He offered no apology.
A revised version of Malloy’s plan passed in special session in June with support from both Klarides and Fasano.
A FITFUL YEAR IN GRIDLOCKED WASHINGTON
Things did get done.
Inspired by the case of James Tillman, a Connecticut man who served 18 years for rape before a DNA test exonerated him and convicted the real rapist, Congress passed a law making restitution for wrongful conviction exempt from federal taxes.
“We took their time away; we should not take their money also,” said Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, who counts Tillman as a constituent. “It’s a double whammy.”
The compromise $1.1 trillion spending bill approved last month provided funding sufficient to increase to 68 the number of Pratt & Whitney-powered F-35 fighters. It seemed weeks earlier that the F-35 program was certain to be cut. The spending bill was supported by the entire Connecticut delegation.
Every Connecticut House member except Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, also voted for the tax package, breaking with their Democratic leaders, who urged no votes from the minority party.
Himes said the bill contained “a lot of good anti-poverty stuff,” and benefits for business, but the country could not afford the package.
It turned out the delegation’s unanimous support for the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank was a point in Connecticut’s favor as far as keeping General Electric in the state. Opposition by Republican delegations in southern states helped sour GE on several possible headquarter cities.
GE’s decision on a new headquarters is expected early in the new year.
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