Unless his second two years are as daunting as the first two, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is one lucky man. Then again, maybe not.
Since his swearing in, Malloy has accomplished a lot of unpleasant tasks (e.g. defusing a budget crisis, a record tax increase, intemperate remarks about teachers and givebacks from state labor unions) that ticked off a lot of his natural allies.
And as I wrote in this space late last year, if the governor wants to run for re-election in 2014, Connecticut’s wretched economy will likely have improved by then and Malloy will have gotten most of the ugly obstacles out of the way early in his first term, leaving those he offended with ample time to forget.
But I might have spoken too soon. Now add this one to the list of Malloy challenges: two senior executives of the newly created Board of Regents of Higher Education resigned last week over a scandal in which 21 education officials were improperly given hundreds of thousands of dollars in raises.
Robert Kennedy, the former president of the University of Maine who had been appointed by Malloy last August as Regents president, apologized last week for authorizing the extravagant raises without board approval at a time when higher education was being told to tighten its belt, most state employees were under wage freezes, and Connecticut was expected to finish the year with a $143 million general-fund deficit.
But it was too little too late, as the resulting public outcry caused Kennedy to step down a few days later, followed by regents’ Vice President Michael Meotti, a former state legislator whose 26-percent raise would have boosted his salary to more than $230,000. For reasons yet unknown, Meotti also had tried to launch a pricey purge of the state’s community college presidents.
Meanwhile, Kennedy, who already had a base salary of $340,000, along with a state vehicle, a unvouchered $25,000 annual expense account, and generous performance incentives, also had a clause in his contract allowing for six weeks of paid vacation and six weeks of paid “professional development” per year. But for almost nine weeks, Kennedy admitted he hung out at his family’s second home in Minnesota and “worked remotely” — which, given his mostly empty calendar, sounds like a euphemism for an extended vacation.
The reaction was swift and relatively furious, as Sen. Beth Bye and Rep. Roberta Willis, both loyal Democrats who co-chair the General Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, were willing to call a duck a duck. Indeed, Willis said she thinks Kennedy “violated the law.”
A picture emerges of a new government bureaucracy that was designed to be more efficient, but has turned out to be a wasteful monster with feckless leadership. The tone is set from the top. Effective leaders lead by example. They do not enrich themselves out of public view and expect the little people at the state’s community colleges to be happy with 9-percent unemployment, declining financial aid, larger classes, and 3.1-percent tuition increases.
Until now, Malloy has steered cleared of serious scandal. But the current specter of Regent-gate, as blogger and former state legislator Jonathan Pelto has dubbed it, threatens to drag the governor into the ash heap of disgrace.
For it was the governor who prevailed on the General Assembly to create the Board of Regents. And, bypassing the protocol of establishing a search committee, Malloy himself selected Kennedy, whom he had met when Kennedy applied unsuccessfully to be president of UConn. And it was Malloy who handpicked the overwhelming majority of the board and set Kennedy’s outrageous contract.
Clearly, Kennedy and Meotti assumed Malloy would either not notice, or look the other way, when they behaved like pigs feeding at the public trough. Either way, the whole fiasco reflects poorly on the governor’s leadership. Will the voters remember it in 2014? Maybe not. But you can bet Tom Foley will.
Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com, is the editor of ctessentialpolitics.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He can be found on Twitter @terrycowgill.