Posted 4/30/12

Half A Loaf

I Dont Give Up
Gov. Dannel Malloy

Photo by Steve Kotchko

The legislature, the Governor, and education interests still are trying to reach an accord on education reform—the issue Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy put into the spotlight this legislative session.  His proposal was bold, perhaps too much so.  Teacher unions have fought it, in part because of elements to change tenure, and they’ve dubbed it a bad experiment.

Considering the struggle on education reform, Malloy was asked at a recent press conference “is half a loaf better than no loaf” in reaching a compromise and the Governor bluntly replied:  “No”.

However, by the time the legislative session ends May 9th, it may be shown that Malloy will have to “settle” on several issues.  The hard-charging Governor, who got his way on a deficit-fighting budget package in 2011, his first year in office, this year has run into resistance from lawmakers.  One major reason behind the resistance is that this is an election year for legislators.  Whatever courtesies they granted to a well-meaning “newbie” Governor last year have been sublimated by the reelection imperative.

For example, Malloy proposed an ambitious package of reforms linked to ending the ban on Sunday sales of liquor at package stores.  The plan included dramatic changes in liquor pricing rules and licensing practices for package stores.

The so-called “Sunday sales” issue has bounced around the legislature for years, only to be beaten back by a skilled lobby for package stores—until now.  Package store owners used to seek out their local lawmakers and plead their case for the status quo.  That strategy worked until this Governor called for change.  The package stores agreed to back off—and go along with the basic Sunday sales premise, but they urged lawmakers to go slow on everything else.

For legislators that plea had election year appeal.  They could be pro-consumer by opening up Sunday liquor sales, while avoiding industry conflict by sending the pricing and licensing issues to a study committee—with recommendations not due until next year, after the elections.

Every chance he had, Malloy said he wanted more now, and claimed he was the only “friend” consumers had when it came to lowering prices for beer, wine, and liquor.  Yet when asked if he’d ordered any meetings with lawmakers to make that happen, Malloy said no.  There are only so many times you can go to the well.

The House voted 116 to 27 in favor of the Sunday sales bill last week, and the Senate is likely to approve the measure as well.  Malloy had no choice except to say the watered-down bill was “a good first step” and remind all that he is the first governor in years to get some kind of change on liquor sales.

The state budget is another challenge for the Governor.  He boldly vowed to make Connecticut conform to GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles), but to do so, he needs at least a $75 million state surplus this year.  Right now, projections point to a deficit of more than $140 million.

Last week, when asked if the GAAP commitment was still on track, Malloy, for the first time, sounded less than sure.  “I’m still hopeful we’ll be able to do that,” he said.  “We’re trying to curtail expenses.”

Malloy also finds himself in a tough spot on what seems like an old-line Democratic principle—a fair minimum wage.  Earlier this year, House Democrats proposed hiking the minimum wage from the current rate of $8.25 an hour, up to $8.75 this year, and $9.25 next year.  Instead of jumping on the bandwagon, Malloy expressed concerns about the shaky economy and the effect higher labor costs would have on business.  He said he’d wait to see what the legislature did on the issue.

Sensing trouble, House Democrats last week did what good “dealers” always do, they eased back on the bill to make it more acceptable.  The wage hike, over two years was lowered to 25 cents a year, and it was approved by the House.

Sen. Donald Williams (D-Brooklyn), the top Democrat in the Senate, revealed that the original minimum wage proposal “really did not have the support” of his caucus, and noses have not yet been counted for the new version, though he said it “may be more palatable.”

If Malloy wants to avoid a minimum wage hike this year, Senate Democrats may be his best hope, but what might be “half a loaf” for those labor-friendly House Democrats, may be something Senate Democrats and ultimately Malloy will have to accept.  After the problems with state employee unions last year in the budget battle, and the tenure problems with teacher unions this year, does Malloy want to look like Scrooge in labor’s eyes over a minimum wage hike of 50 cents an hour over two years?

Because he’s invested so much time, effort and political capital into the education reform debate, you can understand why Malloy gets prickly when a reporter asks if he’s ready to take a “half a loaf” deal on the issue...  A more likely scenario is that whatever compromise gets worked out, the Governor will find a way to claim victory. 

This is a Governor who can’t sound retreat, or in his words:  “You know me.  I don’t give up.  Come on.”

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