Posted 2/13/12

Big & Bold

Gov. Dannel Malloy
Photo by Steve Kotchko

In the raucous holiday comedy film “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”, the lead character Clark Griswold lectures his son about the importance of creating an over-the-top Christmas light display on the house to impress the neighbors.  “I’m going to do it right and I’m going to do it big,” said Griswold.  “You want something you can be proud of don’t you?”

It seemed as if Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy was channeling Clark Griswold in his budget address on opening day of the 2012 General Assembly last week.  After last year’s major overhaul of the state’s fiscal structure, in a budget that contained big tax hikes, labor concessions, and budget cuts, all in the name of ending deficit woes, you’d figure Malloy would go easy this year, especially since the budget’s balance remains shaky due to weak revenues.

Instead, Malloy is proposing education reform, pension reform and more economic development actions.  Said the Governor:  “It is time to lead again.  Let’s think big.  Let’s be bold.”  The Governor went on to say he wants the legislature to help him craft “a full-scale economic revival” in Connecticut, not just simple recovery from recession.

For months, Malloy told lawmakers he wanted this year’s session to focus on education reform.  In his address, Malloy outlined a $128 million program to improve education.  It includes an extra dose of $50 million in the state’s Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula to dole out aid to schools.  Much of that money would go to 30 low-performing school districts.

To keep lawmakers in line for his funding changes in an election year when they are all nervous about “delivering” for their towns, Malloy said the poor districts getting more dollars will have to “embrace key reforms—or they will not get the money.”  Further Malloy said while some towns will get more money, “no one will get less.”

The Governor’s education reforms include several other changes including tougher standards for teacher preparation programs in the colleges, along with financial incentives for new teachers willing to work in low-performing districts, and major changes in teacher tenure that could trigger strong debate.

Reaction to Malloy’s budget address was generally positive from municipal, education, and business sources.  Malloy’s Republican critics avoided caustic comments, in part because they agree with some of his proposals.

GOP lawmakers do continue to question the Administration’s response to fluctuations in the two-year state budget that was supposed to show a major surplus and now that surplus “cushion” has disappeared because income tax revenues have been weak.  Malloy and his budget chief Benjamin Barnes brush off the criticism by vowing to do whatever it takes in budget adjustments to end the fiscal year in the black.

House GOP leader Lawrence Cafero (R-Norwalk) claims those adjustments include governor-ordered cuts in certain health, education, and social service programs, which Cafero contends are part of Malloy’s dreaded “Plan B” of draconian cuts that would have been made if his 2011 budget was not accepted.

In his address, the Governor tried to minimize such criticism by reminding lawmakers of the multi-billion dollar deficit the state faced when he took the reins, or as Malloy put it:  “Connecticut was staring into the abyss of a future none of us wanted.”

This year Malloy claims the state has “passed through the crucible of that crisis” and “positive, far-reaching, meaningful and system change” is evident throughout state government.

The Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA), the state’s major business lobby, praised Malloy’s initiatives.  “Gov. Malloy captured many of the key issues and concerns of the business community,” said John Rathgeber, CBIA’s president.  “He emphasized how critically important private-sector investment is to creating jobs in Connecticut.”

Organizations representing cities and towns also applauded Malloy’s speech, in large part because Malloy, a former mayor, is not proposing any cuts in state aid to municipalities.

“Connecticut’s small towns and cities are facing another brutal budget year and it would be impossible to absorb any additional cuts in state aid,” said Bart Russell, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST).  Jim Finley, CEO of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) said Malloy’s plan add up to “good news for Connecticut cities and towns.”

Perhaps the thorniest element in Malloy’s 2012 initiatives is his pitch for reform of the teacher tenure process.  The Governor did not mince words on the issue.  He claimed tenure was “basically job security” for teachers and added:  “Today tenure is too easy to get and too hard to take away.”

He wants tenure to be based on holding teachers to “a standard of excellence” and tenure won’t be for life, it will “have to be earned and re-earned, not by “simply showing up for work” but by meeting a series of performance standards.

Not surprisingly, teacher unions are unnerved by Malloy’s strong comments.  Sharon Palmer, president of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut called the Governor’s words “a bit harsh and incorrect.”  Mary Loftus Levine, president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union said “tenure is not a job for life” as characterized by Malloy.

The biggest challenge for Malloy may be following through on his “big” and “bold” plans even as he has to cope with the continuing tightness of the state budget.  By April, the state should know if tax revenues will continue to be anemic or if a recovering economy will boost revenues making Malloy’s job a bit easier.

Follow Steve Kotchko on Twitter for news and insider tidbits on politics and government@CRN_News