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The newest member of Newtown’s legislative delegation pulled no punches, offering harsh criticism after Governor Dannel P. Malloy presented a brief, 29-minute State of the State address to open up the 2017 Legislative Session, Wednesday, January 4.
Freshman Second District lawmaker Will Duff accused the governor of calling for measures he would ultimately not support, and for touting a need for bipartisan cooperation to solve problems that prior Democratically lopsided administrations could have easily accomplished years ago — primarily shoring up state pension shortfalls and downsizing the state’s workforce.
While Newtown Representatives Mitch Bolinsky (R-106) and J.P. Sredzinski (R-112) were somewhat more diplomatic, or at least less blunt in post address calls to The Newtown Bee on Wednesday, both separately said the Democratic governor sounded decidedly Republican, soliciting for smaller government, more equitable education spending, downsizing the state workforce, and crafting a leaner formula for distributing municipal aid.
“He did clearly call out that state government needs to be smaller and more efficient, which sounded awfully Republican,” Rep Bolinsky said. “But I guess he realizes we just can’t move money around anymore or borrow our way out of it. We’re beyond that — it’s time to do something with these go-forward pension programs. We don’t want to break promises to anybody, that’s not who we are — these are state employees and we need to keep our promises to them.”
At the same time, 28th District Republican Senator Tony Hwang, in a written statement, said he was able to identify some common ground with Gov Malloy.
“Governor Malloy said that when we come together, hold realistic expectations, and seek common ground, we can deliver results,” Sen Hwang said. “I agree wholeheartedly.”
Rep Bolinsky who was named Assistant GOP Minority Leader this session, will continue to hold a seat on the Education and powerful Appropriations Committees along with newly appointed Rep Sredzinski. Both said having two veteran lawmakers representing Newtown on appropriations would make it easier to fight for or at least sustain local funding and state supported programs.
“It’s important news because we’re going to be spending a lot of time defending what we have and trying our best to improve our lot — and if we can’t improve it, at least maintain it,” Rep Bolinsky said. “But this is going to be a pretty aggressive year when it comes to the budget — I’m almost dreading the day it hits my desk.”
“There isn’t a lot of money to spend,” Rep Sredzinski said. “So this year it will be more about making adjustments — right-sizing and prioritizing services that is best for the state.”
Rep Sredzinski, who was also named to a ranking position on the Public Safety Committee, said he was “glad to see the governor is on board with things the Republicans have been talking about for a long time.”
However, like his Second District colleague Rep Duff, Rep Sredzinski said he wanted to wait to see if the pledges and goals outlined in Wednesday’s speech would carry into proposals in next month’s budget address.
“My biggest concern was hearing how he proposed to modify town aid,” Rep Sredzinski said. “I think a lot of the smaller towns like Newtown and Monroe will really have to be on guard to make sure their state aid is not slashed more than it has been already in previous years. [Malloy has] always said it is the smaller and more affluent towns that can shoulder more of the tax burden. But we have to be responsible to all of our citizens, not just serving the cities.”
Service To Constituents
Rep Duff said he attended Wednesday’s opening of the session mindful of the service his constituents in parts of Newtown, Redding, and Bethel expect, and was proud to be on hand as a newly elected representative. But his sharp criticism of the governor appeared to be borne from years of studying Gov Malloy’s playbook from the sidelines.
“Every year in every state of the union speech across the 50 states, governors get up there and spew these great dreams and hopes. But the reality in Connecticut is this governor has proven he has no intention on following through. Look at his speech today; he wants to take credit for all the good work being done by school districts and boards of education, and in the next breath he’s cutting their funding.”
Rep Duff admitted he was glad to hear talk of union concessions and making government smaller, “but his track record of accomplishment [in those areas] is dismal.”
“By now in Connecticut, nobody is foolish enough to believe it,” Rep Duff said. “It’s going to be up to us to put Connecticut back on track, instead of continuing this governor’s track record of not following through, not being able to accomplish, not being able to execute.”
And when the governor fails, Rep Duff said, it is always somebody else’s fault.
“He had six years with a pretty large Democratic majority for most of it. He could have had any laws passed that he wanted. Now with the tie in the senate, he’s having this ‘Come to Jesus’ talk. I’m afraid to see what’s coming,” Rep Duff said.
Although Rep Bolinsky said the governor did not come to the podium with great news, “at least it was a relief to hear he and his budget writers understand the depth of our problems and that they were four years in the making when it comes to the pension crisis we are facing now. At least they’ve stopped kicking the can down the road.”
Rep Bolinsky said although the state pension shortfall is a huge concern, it is just one of myriad challenges facing lawmakers.
“Educational cost sharing has to be restructured, but the way to go about doing that is undefined because of the billions of dollars in play. My concern is that Newtown doesn’t lose any money in the process,” Rep Bolinsky said. “And when he talked about reformulating municipal aid, my jaw nearly hit the table. So I’m expecting a doomsday budget, and then it will be up to us to find workarounds. He did recognize that everybody has to be at the table, including labor, in order to save Connecticut from financial downfall.
Sen Hwang said he was glad to be part of a state senate where for the first time in 125 years there are equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.
“It’s a new era, and the more balanced state legislature represents good news for Connecticut taxpayers,” Sen Hwang said. “The Senate tie means that both parties will have to collaborate on the policies which will move our state forward. For example, Republicans will now have a seat at the table in addressing our monumental budgetary problems. That collaboration will lead to a healthy and respectful debate.”
To deliver on promises the governor made January 4, Sen Hwang said he and his colleagues must work together to, among other things, restore business confidence by getting Connecticut’s finances in order through common sense, long-term structural changes to the state budget, and making certain that state employee union contracts actually get voted on by the legislature.
“Believe it or not, no vote has been taken on these contracts for more than two decades,” Sen Hwang said.
Speech High Points
Gov Malloy set the stage in his 2017 State of the State address Wednesday for a protracted and difficult debate on how to further shrink state government, extract more concessions from unions on pension and health benefits, and better focus a smaller pool of state aid for education on the systems most in need.
In his seventh speech marking the opening of a General Assembly session, the governor eschewed his usual practice of pitching new initiatives, instead emphasizing concessions, the size of government, and local aid as three broad areas he sees dominating a session certain to hinge once again on the struggle to the balance the budget in a state not fully recovered from the Great Recession of 2008.
A former mayor of Stamford, Gov Malloy has largely sheltered local aid from cuts. He emphasized changes in how town aid is calculated, glossing over what legislators and local officials suspect will also be a smaller pool of money to be shared among the state’s 169 municipalities.
“The state provides a total of $5.1 billion in municipal assistance. That’s more than one fifth of our overall budget this year, making it our biggest single expense — not state employee pensions, not Medicaid, not debt service, not salary and benefits of our employees; town aid accounts for the largest portion of our state budget,” he said.
The opening session speech was a prelude to the budget Gov Malloy will submit in February to a General Assembly much changed by the 2016 elections, when Republicans gained three seats in the Senate and eight in the House, largely by running against the Democratic governor, the Democratic majority, the state’s economy, and its chronic fiscal pains.
The Senate is now evenly divided, and House Democrats will be hobbled by the smallest working majority in the history of the chamber. The GOP has to decide whether it will try to shape and take some ownership of the budget, keeping one eye on 2018, when it hopes to capture both chambers for the first time since 1984.
New Education Formulas
Gov Malloy promised Wednesday to deliver new funding formulas for education, meeting a challenge laid out last year by a Superior Court judge in a school funding lawsuit now before the Connecticut Supreme Court. He gave broad hints on what he might propose.
“We need a formula that appropriately measures a given community’s burden. A formula that recognizes specific challenges faced by local property taxpayers. And a formula that takes into account the impact those challenges have on the education provided to our children,” GovMalloy said.
“All of it will be geared toward building a more predictable budget and a more sustainable Connecticut economy,” he concluded. “We are in this together, and together we shall prevail.”
Portions of this story originally appeared at CTMirror.org, the website of The Connecticut Mirror, an independent, nonprofit news organization covering government, politics, and public policy in the state. CTMirror staffer Keith M. Phaneuf and Mark Pazniokas contributed to this report.