In his final State of the State address, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed a progressive agenda Wednesday to the legislators who shut him out of last year’s budget talks, promising to help fellow Democrats raise the minimum wage, enhance paid sick day protections, address sexual harassment and take a stand on pay equity as acts of “Connecticut fairness.”
His attempt to shape the political agenda of his final year as governor was an early effort to frame his legacy. Malloy cast his proposals as overdue expansions and updates of policies enacted in his tumultuous first seven years in office, including first-in-the-nation laws that raised the minimum wage to $10.10 and required certain private employers to offer paid sick days.
Malloy, 62, the first Democrat elected governor of Connecticut in a generation, coming to office with the narrowest win by any governor here in more than half a century, seems certain to exit as one of the least popular in the U.S., possessing little leverage over a closely divided legislature already focused on re-election campaigns.
But before an audience that included his newborn granddaughter, Malloy gamely embraced the zeitgeist of the moment, repeatedly seeking common cause with Democratic legislators hungry to debate anything other than the budget. He contrasted the relative comity of Connecticut and its General Assembly with the divisions of Washington in Congress and the angry rhetoric of President Trump, never mentioning the president by name.
Malloy released his budget proposals Monday, an effort to give himself room to talk about other things. For a day at least, the governor succeeded in stepping from beneath the cloud of the state’s chronic fiscal and economic challenges, which have helped keep his approval ratings consistently below 25 percent.
Unburdened, Malloy spoke with a voice unheard in recent years as he talked about economic justice, sexual harassment, young Dreamers seeking legal status, the dangers of climate change, and the need to preserve access to health care. Legislators rewarded him with applause, if not equally from both sides of the aisle, interrupting three dozen times in a 35-minute speech that covered a range of issues under the unifying umbrella of fairness.
“We find ourselves at a defining moment in our history, as a state and as a nation. We can no-longer afford the luxury of silence, or the alluring comfort of the status quo,” Malloy said. ”This year, in the face of growing national inequity and unfairness, I want to begin a conversation about a series of common-sense changes we can adopt to advance our proud tradition of ‘Connecticut Fairness’.”
Malloy wore a pink ribbon on his lapel, as did many lawmakers, a gesture to the MeToo movement against sexual harassment.
“Far too many people have been denigrated, intimidated, and violated in their workplace. I want to applaud the legions of courageous women across our nation who have come forward to share their stories of sexual harassment. The reality is we are long overdue for an honest reckoning over harassment in the workplace,” Malloy said. “There is an immediate need to change workplace culture – from small towns to Hollywood, from the mailroom to the boardroom, and from the jailhouse, to the statehouse, all the way up to the White House.”
His speech complemented the “values agenda” released the previous day by House and Senate Democrats, a statement of goals for the three-month session that opened Wednesday and the re-election campaigns to follow. Malloy committed himself to helping Democrats raise the minimum wage, without saying if he agreed with Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney’s call to increase the minimum to $15 over five years.
“We should be leaders on this issue once again,” Malloy said, then he directly addressed the Senate leader: “Sen. Looney, you have been a stalwart champion for working people in our state. I am committed to working with you and members of both chambers this session. Together, let’s pass a bill that ensures another January does not come and go without a raise in Connecticut’s minimum wage.
He also gave encouragement to backers of paid family leave. Bills have been filed in each of the past three years to create an employee-funded program that would partly reimburse participants for wages lost due to leaves taken to care for family members.
Malloy said working people should not fear losing their jobs just because they get sick.
“It’s why in 2011 we passed the first paid sick law in the nation. Since then, eight states and Washington, D.C., have followed our lead,” Malloy said. “A person should not worry about losing wages when they catch the flu. A parent should not need to choose between lost pay and taking care of a sick child. And customers should not worry about being served by a sick employee. This year, the opportunity is before us to improve our paid sick leave laws. Let’s catch up with states that have now surpassed us on this front.”
Malloy said Connecticut, which has cut the number of its uninsured residents by half since the passage of the Affordable Care Act during the administration of President Obama, should preserve the law against attacks in Washington.
“Connecticut Fairness should mean keeping health insurance affordable for everyone. We must take action to ensure stability in our insurance marketplace and to contain premium costs for consumers. We can do something our neighbors in Massachusetts have already done on a bipartisan basis and under a Republican governor,” he said. “Together, let’s pass a bill that preserves the most vital elements of the Affordable Care Act – including the individual mandate. Let’s make it clear that in Connecticut, healthcare is a fundamental right.”
The governor also reiterated his call for the legislature to ban “bump stocks,” the accessory that allowed the Las Vegas gunman to effectively convert semi-automatic rifles into machine guns. And he indicated a desire to make a final attempt at protecting youthful offenders from adult criminal records, an effort that failed last year.
His speech played well to the Democratic base.
“I thought it was a great way to set the temperature,” said Lori J. Pelletier, the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, adding that “making sure everyone has a good-paying job is not a partisan issue. It’s about what’s good for the state of Connecticut.”
“We’re very encouraged by his commitment to put the needs of Connecticut’s workers, who have made so many sacrifices over the years, first. His plan to ensure fairness in the workplace is a welcomed return to the policies he campaigned on and made Connecticut a national leader for other states to follow,” said Linsday Farrell, the executive director of the Connecticut Working Families Party, a labor offshoot.
A rapprochement by the governor and legislative Democrats would be significant, but no guarantee of substantive change. The Senate remains evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and the defection of just four Democrats on any issue in the House gives the GOP effective control.
Democrats loved hearing a speech about topics other than the budget. Republicans, who hope to win control of both chambers this fall for the first time since Ronald Reagan’s re-election landslide of 1984, were quick to change the conversation back to the Democrats’ stewardship of the state’s finances.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, and Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven, both labeled the governor’s address as “purely political.”
“All you need to know is that in a state overwhelmed with taxes, debt and deficits, the governor did not utter one word about the economy,” Klarides said. “That’s because they have no positive record to run on.”
Fasano ridiculed the governor’s emphasis on fairness as a theme.
“Where is the fairness in that we are one of the highest-taxed states in the country?” Fasano said. “Where is the fairness in an economy that is failing. That’s the fairness I want to talk about.”
Joseph F. Brennan, the president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said his members expect government to continue efforts to stabilize finances and to stimulate the economy, despite the obstacles of election-year politics.
“The business community is starting to grow our economy at a higher rate than we have seen in years, and we can’t slow down the process,” Brennan said.
The field of gubernatorial contenders gave Malloy’s address mixed reviews, splitting along predictable, partisan lines.
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and former U.S. Comptroller David Walker, both Republicans, said the governor spoke volumes by saying little about fiscal issues.
“I was surprised and disappointed,” Walker said, adding that while pay equity, for example, is an important issue, “if we don’t put our finances in order, everyone is going to suffer.”
With analysts projecting a deficit topping $5 billion in the two-year state budget cycle immediately after the election, “this is the Connecticut moment,” Boughton said. “This is the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”
But Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, a Democrat and former general counsel to Malloy, praised the governor’s agenda. “You have a Democratic Party that seems united in pushing issues of fairness and economic fairness,” Bronin said. “I hope that in Connecticut we can rise above the divisive partisanship we see in Washington and in other parts of the country.”