As he considers running for lieutenant governor, David Walker made it clear Monday that he hopes to raise awareness of the fiscal challenges facing Connecticut rather than debating other hot-button issues.
The former U.S. Comptroller General discussed his plans at a press conference outside the state Capitol after having announced his exploratory committee on an episode of “Face the State” that aired Sunday.
Walker, a co-founder of the “No Labels” movement, rejoined the Republican Party last week after more than 15 years as an unaffiliated voter. He said election policy in Connecticut leaves the deck “stacked” against truly unaffiliated candidates.
Although he said Connecticut will need political reforms to address that “over time,” in the near-term he is focused on fiscal issues.
“Clearly one of the state’s highest priorities should be gaining control over spending, balance the budget and take steps to improve the overall financial condition of the state,” he said.
This financial focus is not without controversy. Asked for specific ideas, Walker cited Connecticut’s unfunded pension liability, which he said was higher per taxpayer than any other state in the country. He suggested the state needed to benchmark state employee pension plans against those offered by other major employers.
Walker said solutions will have to be worked out through discussions with state employee unions but the position puts him at odds with those same unions. However, he said the average taxpayer has trouble understanding why he or she will pay higher taxes over time for state workers with better benefits and job security.
Walker said changes will need to be made through negotiations with unions “sooner rather than later.” But he was critical of the labor agreement negotiated between Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration and the state’s labor union coalition.
“It was inappropriate and irresponsible for the governor to enter in to the long-term labor contract that he did. He agreed to things that go well beyond his tenure in office and that’s even if he gets re-elected, which I don’t think that he will,” he said.
The labor agreement approved in 2011 goes through 2022. Larry Dorman, spokesman for AFSCME Council 4, said Walker’s comments failed to recognize the sacrifices the state’s public workers made to protect critical state services and stabilize the retirement system.
Dorman said Walker is focused on stripping public workers of benefits instead of improving the security of others.
“I hope he does a little more research on the looming retirement crisis facing all Connecticut citizens,” he said. “Too many in the private sector don’t have pensions at all because of what corporate America is doing.”
Walker was less interested in discussing other controversial issues. During the press conference, he was asked about his position on gun control and the new firearm regulations passed last year after the Sandy Hook shooting.
The issue is likely to play a role in the politics of this election year, especially within the Republican Party. State Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, a Stafford Republican who has been running for lieutenant governor since March, has been outspoken in her opposition to the new law.
Walker answered the question, saying he would not have supported the bill, but he qualified his answer.
“I’m going to focus on the economy, jobs, and fiscal responsibility,” he said. “I will deal, as you are requesting, with certain social issues that are important to many people but in my view are not ‘Priority One.’”
Having said that, Walker added that although he did not support the law Connecticut adopted, he said the state did need some legislation on the issue. He said the state should take “a hard look at additional background checks . . . with regard to the mentally ill,” and should increase the penalties for using certain kinds of weapons.
“I would encourage you to continue to ask those kinds of questions if you want, but I’m focusing, as I said, on the economy, jobs, and fiscal responsibility because if we don’t get that right, quite frankly, the other stuff . . .” he said without finishing the sentence.
Walker also suggested that his decision to consider running was at least partly motivated by raising awareness of the state’s financial health. He said he has been traveling the country for the last 10 years trying to raise awareness about the fiscal issues facing the nation and has found that candidates get more attention.
“I have become convinced that the press and public will pay 10 times more attention to you if you’re a candidate. One of the reasons I’m running is because of that simple fact,” he said.