(Updated) One would freeze bonding, one would dust off some studies, and one won’t fund state employee pensions.
That’s how the three Republicans seeking to become Connecticut’s next governor—R. Nelson “Oz” Griebel, Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, and Tom Foley—said they’d address the state’s $3.4 billion budget deficit, as they met in their final debate before the Aug. 10 primary. The debate took place Wednesday at WFSB’s Rocky Hill studios.
“I will not submit a budget over next four years that has $1 more of spending in it than the $17.7 billion that‘s currently in the general operating fund,” Griebel said Wednesday during the hour long debate. He also said he won’t fund about $1.4 billion in contributions to the state employees and teacher retirement funds. He said that leaves about a $300 million deficit.
With the state starting with a $3.4 billion deficit, Griebel admitted that he‘s not sure exactly where the remaining $300 million will come from, but is confident he could find it.
“One of the first things I would do is freeze bonding,” said Fedele said. “Thirteen cents on every dollar we bring in goes toward bonding costs.” In addition, Fedele said he would go through the budget line-by-line and look for cuts and efficiencies.
Foley would dust off some old studies on where to find efficiencies in government from the 1990s and implement the recommendations that apply to the current situation. He mentioned the Hall-Harper study and the Thomas Commission report.
“We have a serious problem with health care costs in this state,” Foley said. He said Medicaid accounts for about $4 billion of the $5 billion Department of Social Services budget that’s in addition to what it costs to insure the state employees and retirees. “So if we could get 15 to 20 percent savings on our health care costs…we could save over $1 billion.”
“I think in our Department of Corrections we incarcerate too many people,” Foley said. “I’m told if we change our rules and had alternative forms of punishment for non-violent criminals we could also save several hundred million dollars.”
In addition to those three cuts, Foley said he would cut the $23 million attorney general’s budget because filing lawsuits that make it hard to do business in the state is not helpful.
Griebel said his opponents are simply nibbling around the edges.
“We’re talking about $23 million, a hundred million dollars here, a hundred million dollars there, let’s all make sure we’re talking about the right numbers, $3.4 billion,” Griebel said. “Unless we’re prepared to say I’m going to take a billion out here or a billion and half out here, I don’t know whether the question has been actually answered.”
He said his biggest concern right now is not the spending, but the “rosy” revenue estimates, which make some assumptions about the health of the economy. He said his worry is the next governor will have to come in and clean up, in addition to the $3.4 billion deficit, a deficit for the current fiscal year in the range of $300 to $500 million.
“We need a long term strategy to drive this budget, not the short term budget to drive the strategy,“ Fedele said somewhat agreeing with Griebel. However, Fedele said he’d take those short term savings where he could.
Foley challenged Fedele’s knowledge of the budget by saying bonded debt is not an expense in the budget and doesn’t count toward the deficit.
“There is no silver bullet. There is no $2 billion item sitting out there,” Foley said. “So it is going to take someone who really understands the budget and somebody with a lot of discipline.”
With no opportunity to respond to Foley’s criticism of his budget knowledge, Fedele added during a question about tourism that “expense for debt is an expense out of P and L,” which on a business spreadsheet stands for profit and loss. The term is not often used by government officials when talking about the state budget.
Candidates Continue Attacks
With negative campaign ads and a lawsuit, which was appealed all the way up to the state Supreme Court, some could argue the Republican gubernatorial primary has been just as nasty as the Democratic one.
But there weren’t any calls for civility outside WFSB’s Rocky Hill studio Wednesday afternoon for a taping of the debate because none of the candidates’ supporters were there. A stark contrast to the scene Tuesday for the taping of the Democratic gubernatorial debate.
A small group of supporters and campaign workers filled the small studio where the three candidates were asked to differentiate themselves from each other and Gov. M. Jodi Rell during the first 17-minutes of the hour long debate.
Foley, the frontrunner in the Republican primary, laid out the differences between him and Fedele, as if no time had passed between Wednesday and the last televised debate in New London.
“We need a new sense of direction, a new leadership,” Foley said criticizing Fedele for being part of the current administration. “I have not been serving in this government and I’m not part of the problem,“ Foley said.
Foley opined that Rell should have vetoed the 2009 budget, which included a tax hike for Connecticut’s wealthiest citizens. Fedele countered that he’s not the governor and has no power to propose or veto a budget as lieutenant governor.
Instead of leaving Griebel out of the mudslinging this time, Foley accused him of being part of the “tax and spend culture in Hartford.”
“I’m against any new taxes and will balance the budget solely with spending reductions,” Foley said. The next governor of Connecticut needs executive experience running a “large” company, he said.
An issue which has cropped up during the campaign has been Fedele’s decision to participate in the public financing system. Griebel said that’s just one difference between him and the lieutenant governor. The difference between Griebel and Foley, Griebel said he’s spent the last 17 years here in the state of Connecticut working and building businesses, while Foley was in Ireland, Iraq and South Carolina.
“I think there needs to be a dramatic shift from the last four years,” Griebel said in answering the first question. However, Griebel also said he would welcome the governor’s endorsement when he answered the second question of the debate.
He said he thinks she made a mistake in not vetoing the past two budgets and not using the bully pulpit. But he would welcome her endorsement, which may depend on whether she wants to be “driven to the polls in Mike’s Ferrari, flown there on Tuesday in Tom’s plane or ride with me in my Ford Explorer with 230,000 miles on it.”
There have been rumors that Rell may endorse one of the three candidates prior to the primary.
However, while her endorsement may have been prized in the early stages of the campaign, it’s almost toxic now that her decisions over the past few years are being called into question by all three Republican candidates.
Fedele, who was the target of attacks from Republican lawmakers last week, said he brings 26 years of business experience, legislative and executive experience to the job. He said for Foley to allege he had anything to do with the states job loss is similar to saying Al Gore created the Internet. ‘We all know those jobs were lost because of the global meltdown that not only effected Connecticut, but effected the world,“ Fedele said.
Fedele accused Foley of not understanding these things because he was overseas in Ireland and Iraq.
Foley said he’s surprised by the criticism that he served his country as Ambassador to Ireland and as director of private sector development for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. He said he considers his experience an asset not a liability.
There few moments of substance during the debate with the exception of a question about the spending cuts and one about whether the state should play a role in promoting tourism in the state.