Democratic Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman may not have been elected in one of the 36 districts of the Connecticut Senate, but she effectively will be the 37th state senator in the next legislative session.
When Republicans won enough seats to force an 18-18 tie in the Senate for the first time in more than a century, the Senate Democratic leadership was quick to tout her as their “19th vote,” giving them an effective majority. Both parties are still working out the details of governing with an evenly split Senate.
But what does Wyman think about her role in the next session? During an interview with the Mirror, she said she wants to be part of the discussion as legislative decisions are made.
Wyman shared her thoughts about the historic role she could play as a possible tiebreaking vote, the importance of bipartisanship, the challenges posed by the budget and Connecticut’s path forward.
Q: When it became clear on election night that Republicans had won enough seats to force a tie in the state Senate, what were some of the thoughts going through your head?
A: You know, there was a little bit of surprise to see who lost. But, on the other hand, I went over immediately and thought, “You know what? Over 90 percent of the votes cast in the Senate are bipartisan.” And I really do believe that both sides of the aisle really care about the people of the state. So I knew we were going to make it through it, and we’ll do the right thing for the state of Connecticut.
Q: With the chamber split, you’re in the extraordinarily rare position of being a possible tiebreaking vote along party lines. What will your philosophy be in the next session for casting that vote? Do you see yourself in a bullish role, enforcing the Democratic majority, or as more of a last resort when compromise fails?
A: I hope to be part of that discussion, so we don’t have to worry about that. I’ve been fortunate to have friends on both sides of the aisle, and we’ve been able to work together. You know, what I think we’re going to be doing, and I know what I’m going to be doing, is making sure the votes that I have to cast – if I have to cast any – is the right thing for the people of the state.
Q: How important will bipartisanship be next session?
A: I think it’s important every year. And I was fortunate when I was in the House to have multiple friends on both sides of the aisle, that we worked together. They might have been ranking members on the committees that I chaired, but we worked together, got things done, and did what we thought were the right things for the state.
Q: Do you feel like the spirit of bipartisanship has been missing in the state legislature over the past few years?
A: I think we’re going to have to work at it a little bit more. I think the interesting part is that the public doesn’t understand that so much of the legislature really is bipartisan. All the votes that are shown on television or anything else, is always when they’re in a fight – not looking at a consent calendar that might have 55 bills on it that everybody’s going to vote for, not seeing where . . . people are crossing lines. I feel sorry that people out there don’t understand that this place works much more as bipartisan than anything else.
Q: Part of what’s driving the difference on some of those key votes that are closer than the rest is a difference of philosophy on the state of Connecticut and how it’s perceived by each party. What’s your perception of how things are going in Connecticut?
A: You know, it’s really kind of interesting to me, because I think, even though everybody reports that we don’t talk — ‘they haven’t been negotiating on the budget, they haven’t been talking’ — we have a process in this state that talks about joint committees, and the joint committees usually . . . have subcommittees so people of both parties are working together to get something out before it goes to the full committee. And so fingerprints on mostly everything [are] bipartisan. I really believe in our state and the parties. I think, yes, do we have different philosophies on certain things? Yeah. But not always “one way is the right way,” and so there’s ways of changing – I think, in my opinion – correcting a bill that might be [one-sided] by putting in ideas from both sides.
Q: Let’s talk about what’s likely to be the biggest issue in the next session: the budget. Crafting the biennium budget is going to be an onerous task, to say the least.
A: Yes it is.
Q: I believe it was Sen. Fasano who said yesterday that the state is in a “death spiral,” fiscally speaking. Do you agree? If not, how would you describe the challenge Connecticut is facing?
A: Look, I don’t think it’s a death spiral. I think that’s incorrect. I really believe that we do have budget problems, but we have been working at it and working at it for a while. And we are seeing some improvements. Let’s talk about the job gains that we have seen in the state. Let’s talk about the educational gains – the achievement gap that is closing. Let’s talk about more people having health care in the state than ever before. Let’s talk about the good things that are coming to the state, not just the bad things. The budget part of it right now is that we have to come in with a lean budget. We know we have to do that.
Q: Do you think you have a sense of optimism about things in Connecticut right now?
A: I do. I do think that we can get things done if we work together. Have we had some problems with the budget? Yes we have. But we’ve had some really good things happening here: job increases, be it the fact that our academics – we are closing the achievement gap – the fact that so many people have health care right now. This is great stuff that is going on in our state. The expansion of companies in our state, the investments that we have done have been great. You look at our industry – Sikorsky, Pratt & Whitney and down at the submarines – and they’re all expanding. So that’s good jobs for our state. We still have to clean up some of the budget. I do believe if we really work together, we can do this.
Q: Getting into a bit more of a technical question with the budget and the long-term picture, the state’s budget situation is being driven by two major factors: falling revenue and rising pension and debt service costs. How can the state stem the bleeding at this point? And with projected pension and debt service costs over the next decade expected to increase to the tune of billions of dollars, what options does the state have to address this challenge?
A: I think there’s a few options. First of all, we have to give credit where credit is due. The governor has in the last seven years put money in to reduce the pension obligations, which hadn’t been done before. So we are going towards that. The fact is that we have to work with our brothers and sisters in the unions to sit down and see how we can readjust some of the payments and see what we can do to help out. And I think that can be done. I think people realize that it’s not just the budget, it’s the previous obligations. But I think the public also has to realize that those obligations were given a long time ago, and we’re now seeing some of the financial repercussions of it. We’re going to have to work it out. We’re going to have to change things around. We have to do it as a united front.
Q: One last question – with the 2016 election cycle now behind us, are you planning to run for governor in 2018?
A: Not right now. Thank you for the question. Right now, we’re really just working on the budget. We’re working on getting things together. I’m just thinking about what I have to do when I go into that Senate chamber. I thank you for the question. People have been asking. I don’t think I want to make a decision today.
This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.