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Posted 5/21/12

Signin' Time


Pen To Paper
Photo by Steve Kotchko

Last week was a pretty good one for Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy.  The legislature had gone home and he had the State Capitol stage all to himself.  He used that opportunity to sign into law two bills that were very important to his administration and his image.

The first was the education reform package that Malloy had made the focal point of the 2012 legislative session.  The second was a measure to allow package stores to open on Sundays and some key holidays, and allow supermarkets to sell beer on those days.

Signing education reform helped Malloy achieve one of his main goals, while Sunday liquor sales helps the Governor make points with consumers (i.e. voters) who are still miffed about  his big tax hikes in 2011, if you judge things by Malloy's weak job approval rating in the polls.

The room used for the education bill signing ceremony was jam packed with educators, lawmakers, lobbyists, media, and school kids.  It took so long for Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman to shush the crowd so the event could begin, you almost expected her to start assigning detention to the noisiest in the group--all of whom were adults.

Malloy strode in not so much as the conquering hero, but as a politician pleased to have survived the toughest fight of his second year in office.  Teachers and their unions didn't like the tone of Malloy's pitch for school reform from the get go, because it sounded to them like teacher bashing.  Tenure was up in the air, threatening to make the teacher job scene, already shaky because of local budget cuts and layoffs, even more uncertain.

Teachers fought Malloy at his own education town meetings and at the Capitol through lobbying and public rallies.  In the end, a compromise was reached.  Teacher union officials came out to praise the deal minutes after it passed the legislature, and the Governor embraced it, because just days earlier there was a good chance the whole issue was going to blow up.

"I believe education reform is the civil rights issue of our time, (and with the signing of the bill into law), the table will be set for real and fundamental reform of our public schools," the Governor proclaimed.

He praised Democrats and Republicans for voting in a bipartisan fashion to approve the education reform package in contrast to Congress that is "paralyzed by partisan bickering."  As for the battle with teachers and other interests that raged for months, the Governor minimized that as time spent "debating the nuts and bolts of what an education reform package should look like in our state."

Malloy maintains that the key elements he laid out in the beginning were adopted:  new money to help struggling schools, state authority to turn around the lowest-performing schools, a teacher evaluation system, and 1000 new slots in quality pre-school education programs in low-income communities.

However, some of Malloy's critics claim he had to settle for a series of studies and pilot projects instead of a bold initiative.  Only time will tell if this education reform package was the game changer that turned around Connecticut's schools and ended the shameful achievement gap between rich and poor towns that has plagued the state for decades.

To mark the end of another decades-long battle, the fight to end the ban on Sunday liquor sales at Connecticut package stores, the Governor travelled to Enfield--a town near the border of Massachusetts.  In contrast to package stores in interior Connecticut that opposed any effort to make them open on Sundays, border town merchants favored the move.  They saw too many of their customers make quick trips to Massachusetts, New York, or Rhode Island to buy booze on Sunday.

Last year, Malloy, preoccupied with the challenge of ending Connecticut's $3.6 billion deficit, said he'd sign a Sunday liquor sales bill if it came to his desk, but he did not personally engage on the issue.  At they'd done in the past, package store lobbyists succeeded in tanking the Sunday sales bill of 2011.

This year, the Governor came out swinging.  He proposed his own bill to allow Sunday sales at package stores, and beer sales at supermarkets.  Malloy also included several changes in pricing rules that really could have transformed liquor sales in this state.

Once the Governor made Sunday sales a priority, package stores knew they had a problem.  Their strategy?  Give in.  The liquor stores said they'd agree to the basic Sunday sales option, but told lawmakers that asking them to absorb an extra day of work, plus a host of new pricing rules in the same year was too much for their "mom and pop" businesses.

That turned into a compromise that worked.  The bill gives package stores the option of opening on Sundays, plus Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and Labor Day and actually increases the number of liquor licenses package owners can have from two to three.  In addition, it allows package stores to sell party-related "snacks" such as olives, cheese, and crackers.

However, the pricing rules have been pushed off to a study committee--a perennial legislative tactic used to defuse hot button issues.  Malloy kept saying he wanted those pricing rules to benefit consumers, but in the end, he too was willing to see what the task force comes up with.

At Enfield Town Hall, Malloy staged a ceremonial bill signing for Sunday liquor sales, a few days after he officially put pen to paper on the legislation.  In practical terms, this past Sunday, May 20, was the first Sunday package stores were permitted to open, and supermarkets could sell beer.  The hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.  That schedule is tactical.  Neighboring states apparently allow their stores to start selling booze at noon on Sundays.

"It is literally about our ability to compete with states that have been taking money away from us on an ongoing basis," Malloy said of the new Sunday sales law.  "When the product is less expensive and more convenient to purchase in (nearby) states, you lose $570 million worth of sales--that's what we know," he said.

"This is an historic step that we are taking as the last big Blue Law is finally rolled back," said the Governor.

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