Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had a good week, perhaps the defining week of his still-young term. He began with the announcement last Friday of an agreement with union leaders on a concessions package, hit its peak Monday with a rousing speech in defense of his budget, drawing a sharp line with other states, and continued with the announcement of his plan for a major addition to the UConn Health Center Tuesday.
The agreement with the unions turned out to be the kind of thing that people on both the left and the right absolutely hate. Constant Malloy critic Jonathan Pelto, who has become the guy the media mines for quotes when they need a liberal who doesn’t like the governor’s policies, called the deal “shocking,” and a “debacle,” among other things, implying union members should vote against it. Republican leaders, on the other hand, implied that Malloy let the unions get off easy, while continuing to bemoan the budget’s relatively mild tax increases. Meanwhile, many state employees seem cautiously optimistic about the agreement, especially as they come to know more about it.
Is the deal perfect? Hardly, but neither were the other parts of the budget. There are also questions about where the $400 million or so in needed additional spending cuts will come from, and critics on both the left and right are suggesting that the numbers don’t really add up. The budget itself is still threatened by a lawsuit brought by a team of state conservatives, who claim that its passage was unconstitutional. Despite all of this, the budget and the union concession package remain monumental achievements.
This was the theme of Malloy’s victory lap speech at the annual Jefferson-Jackson-Bailey dinner Monday; despite “naysayers” who thought it couldn’t be done, Malloy, the legislature and the unions worked out a deal designed to actually put the state on a firmer financial foundation without either shredding the social safety net, hurting the economy or using state workers as scapegoats. Whether the budget actually does this has yet to be seen, but clearly that’s its intent. In these times of cost-cutting, union-bashing and buck-passing austerity plans, that’s something of a revolution all by itself.
Malloy said that “…in Connecticut we are pursuing a road in a different direction than 49 other states.” Certainly he’s bucked the national trend of governors forgoing tax increases in favor of squeezing workers, which can be seen playing out in nearby New York and New Jersey, to name a few. Malloy is often compared with the pompous, bullying Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ), who once famously said Malloy needed to “read the governor’s owners manual,” and that he’d be waiting at the border to take Connecticut jobs. The lack of rancor surrounding the budget deal has led some in New Jersey to wonder whether Christie could take a lesson or two from Malloy in how to get difficult things done without resorting to childish, insulting and hyper-partisan rhetoric.
The overlooked big deal of the week was Malloy’s announcement of a proposal to pump almost $900 million into revamping the UConn Health Center, a mammoth investment which will hopefully help create the kinds of high value bioscience jobs the area desperately needs. Some, like the increasingly irrelevant GOP chair Chris Healy, are criticizing the plan as some sort of danger to privately-owned hospitals, and the speed at which the improvements bill has been moving through the General Assembly has given some members pause. The governor is still pressing forward on this and other more controversial bills, like paid sick days.
All of this has had the effect of making the governor incredibly unpopular as his first legislative session winds down. The problem seems to be that while the public in principle loves politicians who get things done and pay no attention to polls, in practice they prefer leaders like Jodi Rell who seem nice, but never do anything even mildly controversial (a notable exception: Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, but I’m waiting to see what happens when the bill comes due there). I’m impressed by Malloy’s willingness to let his own popularity suffer in pursuit of his vision for the state, even when I don’t entirely agree with what he’s doing. So far it seems to be working over the short term; Malloy’s well on his way to getting a lot of what was on his agenda done.
There may be a steep political price to pay, however. The last time a governor spent so much political capital this early was Lowell Weicker in 1991, and three years after that Republicans gained control of the governorship and the state Senate. It doesn’t seem like Malloy’s too worried about possible doom and gloom in 2014, though, and maybe that’s exactly what the state needs.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of Connecticut Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.