Christine Stuart photo

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wanted to talk about his vision for Connecticut’s transportation future Wednesday, but local elected officials were more focused on unfunded municipal mandates and property tax relief.

“What we really need to do is have an adult discussion about whether we want to have a first-class transportation system here in Connecticut,” Malloy said during the annual Council of Small Towns meeting in Cromwell.

Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi, who was in favor of reinstalling tolls on Connecticut’s highways when he was running for governor several years ago, asked Malloy about whether he would support tolls as a way to pay for those improvements.

Malloy, who will deliver his budget address on Feb. 18, danced around the question. He said he’s still gauging public support for the size of the transportation package he plans on presenting to the legislature

“There are plenty of different ways to pay for it. Tolls are one of them,” Malloy said. “But it’s not an exclusive way to do it.”

As far as mandate relief is concerned, Malloy said they’ve had that discussion for years.

“I have a pet line that probably annoys the hell out of everybody: As a guy who eats in restaurants I’m glad they mandate they be inspected,” Malloy said. “I think the mandates that are discussed need to be specific and we need to understand that. We’re partners and we shouldn’t be shifting all of our whole burden to you.”

Legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle were more specific about where they stand on mandate relief.

Roxbury First Selectwoman Barbara Henry said her town has done everything it can to create efficiencies on a regional level in cooperation with nearby towns and yet the state still asks it to do more. There is legislation proposed on an annual basis that would require a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly on any new unfunded mandate.

In a panel discussion following Malloy’s remarks, House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, said every bill that’s brought to the floor of the legislature gets a number of comments from the non-partisan staff.

“Every bill that includes a stamp from the non-partisan staff saying ‘mandate on towns and cities’ doesn’t go anywhere,” Sharkey said. “We typically don’t even vote on bills that require a mandate or impose a mandate on cities and towns because already we know it won’t have the support of the members.”

Sharkey said so even without legislation requiring a two-thirds vote the legislature is avoiding passing unfunded mandates onto cities and towns.

However, Senate Republican lead Len Fasano, said if that’s true then the legislature should simply pass the legislation requiring a two-thirds vote for any unfunded municipal mandate.

“Why not put the two-thirds in? If we’re not passing municipal mandates that are hurting …  then put the two-thirds in,” Fasano said. “What’s the problem?”

He said it’s an easy way to help municipalities solve the problem of having to increase the property tax in order to implement these new mandates passed along by the state to municipalities.

Sen. President Martin Looney said if the fiscal note comes back and says there’s a municipal mandate then it has to go to the Appropriations Committee again, even if the bill had been there already.

“It creates additional hurdles and burdens for bills that are labeled as having a municipal mandate,” Looney said. “Having an additional requirement of a two-thirds vote is not necessary because bills with that label already get sufficient scrutiny.”

Looney said the two-thirds vote should be reserved for overriding gubernatorial vetoes. He said there is a 60 percent vote required for certain spending cap issues, but “it seems to me the legislature by majority vote should be able to do what it judges to be in the best interest of the people in the state of Connecticut.”

As far as holding municipalities harmless, Malloy told local elected officials Wednesday that “I consider you a partner and that drives our deliberations.”

Malloy is expected to unveil his budget on Feb. 18 and when he does he will need to erase a projected $1.3 billion deficit in 2016 and a $1.5 billion deficit in 2017. On the campaign trail, Malloy promised to hold cities and towns harmless, but on Wednesday he pointed out that revenues haven’t grown at the rate he anticipated.

Pressed by reporters about what exactly that means for municipalities Malloy tried his best not to answer the question.

“I think until the budget’s out, it’s not out,” Malloy said.