NORWALK — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s town hall meeting in Norwalk was somewhat similar to dozens he’s held in past years, but Wednesday’s was different.
The formula was the same, but the stakes were much higher. The first-term governor isn’t expected to announce his re-election campaign until after May 7, the end of the legislative session, but there’s little doubt among Democrats that he’s going to run.
Wednesday’s town hall followed a familiar script. Malloy offered about five-minutes of opening comments regarding his budget proposal and he spoke about what he had to overcome when he took office.
“I don’t have a lot to pre-load or to start with,” Malloy said. “We collectively are doing the best we can. We collectively are dealing with a long period of time in which the state of Connecticut didn’t make some of the changes that it needed to make.”
He reminded the more than 100 who attended that Connecticut had the largest per capita deficit of any state in the nation in 2011.
“That’s going from a $3.6 billion deficit to what should be a $500 million surplus,” Malloy said to a round of applause. “The day I was sworn in all of the money in the rainy day fund had been spent down to zero.”
He said if the state is going to end this year with a surplus he wants to give $155 million of that back to taxpayers, use $250 million to boost the rainy day fund, and contribute an additional $100 million to the state employee pension plan.
Another part of the familiar town hall script involves Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman playing the role of Vanna White holding the microphone for the members of the public to question the governor. She assumed the role Wednesday and comforted those who were nervous while gently ushering the overly eager speakers away from the microphone at the appropriate time.
What was different perhaps than in years past is the presence of the executive director of the Connecticut Democratic Party, a party spokesman, and a video tracker.
James Hallinan, a spokesman for the party, declined to comment on the use of the video tracker. None of the video they captured would be allowed to be used in Malloy’s re-election campaign.
“We’re not going to comment on strategy like that,” Hallinan said.
As for the public, the comments and questions varied from a woman who runs a nursing facility that’s struggling to a woman who wanted Malloy to support a legislative proposal that would give adopted children access to their medical records.
Then there were those like Carmen Sargent of SEIU 32 BJ, a union representing janitors and cleaners, who praised Malloy’s budget and policies.
“As nice as you were, you probably just got me in trouble,” Malloy told Sargent, who the party said was not a “plant.”
Then there was Bob MacGuffie of Right Principles. MacGuffie is a member of the Tea Party, and was upset with Malloy’s comments at a Democratic fundraising dinner in September.
Malloy described the Republicans in Washington as the “barbarians at the wall” in his keynote speech.
MacGuffie was offended. “I’m a Tea Party activist. We don’t like being lied to and we don’t like being lied about,” MacGuffie said.
He said Malloy needs to stop “ridiculing” hundreds of thousands of residents who simply want Malloy to “change the trajectory” of spending.
“You ridicule us while Connecticut is ranked as the worst run state in the nation by Barron’s,” MacGuffie said.
Malloy let him finish before responding. He encouraged MacGuffie to look at the chart and calculate the spending growth of the state budget during his administration. Malloy claims he’s kept it to 2.8 percent.
Malloy went on to ask MacGuffie to calculate how much his administration has lowered the state’s long-term debt verses how much it grew under the past two administrations. He said he thinks the two can find agreement in that area. Where they won’t agree is on issues like health care.
“I happen to believe that citizens need to have insurance, that no person should fail to get a mammogram because they can’t afford it,” Malloy said.
The comment got applause. MacGuffie, referring to Junior Sierra, an undocumented student struggling to afford college, said he thinks he should have his college paid for “but it’s never going to happen.”
Malloy told Sierra, who won a scholarship to Quinnipiac University that he won’t be able to use because he doesn’t qualify for financial aid, that he would look into what he could do about creating unrestricted “governor’s scholarships.”
Connecticut already offers in-state tuition rates to undocumented students, but those students don’t qualify for federal financial aid which still puts higher education out of reach for many. Ultimately, the immigration issue has to be handled by Congress, Malloy said.