HARTFORD — Attendees at Wednesday night’s budget town hall with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy were hoping the man they elected to lead the state is a magician.
Malloy asked members of the audience if they wanted him to raise taxes. They said no. He asked if they wanted him to lay off more state employees. They said no.
“Do you want me to pull a rabbit out of my hat?” Malloy asked.
Scattered voices in the crowd responded to the question with the opposite answer: “Yes.”
The tone started off lighthearted, but tension grew quickly as Malloy entered into a dialogue with citizens packed into the reading room at the University of Connecticut’s School of Law in Hartford. Malloy heard from 10 speakers who voiced a number of concerns relating to cuts in the governor’s proposed state budget for the coming fiscal year.
Facing a deficit that could top $900 million according to a nonpartisan analysis, Malloy has few options and no rabbits at his disposal. Instead, he has what he said is the state’s new economic reality and 18 months that he said no economist would describe as “rosy.”
His proposed budget would cut $570 million in state spending, and he has called for additional cuts as a result of new analysis that showed falling revenue in the state.
“We are going to have to live within our means,” Malloy said. “We’re going to have to take those steps that are necessary. And the steps that are necessary – we’re in the process of taking. I think what you’re hearing tonight is they don’t like the road we’re going down. ... We’ve gone to the well (by raising taxes), and now we’ve got to do something else.”
Union workers waved signs as members of the public arrived at the campus for the meeting. Two unions, SEIU and the University of Connecticut Professional Employees Association (UCPEA), gathered outside the entrance to William F. Starr Hall, where the event was being held.
UCPEA’s members, who are currently voting on whether to return to the bargaining table with UConn after facing backlash for pay raises in their controversial contract, stood and held signs in the back of the room for the entire event.
“Respect collective bargaining,” UCPEA members chanted before the governor made his entrance.
One speaker directly challenged Malloy on the state’s major collective bargaining agreement, SEBAC, which was approved in 2011. The speaker said the state’s economic condition has only continued to grow worse since then.
Malloy said the situation would be much worse now if the agreement hadn’t been reached. He also returned to the topic during his closing statement, hinting that public employees in the state need to be willing to renegotiate SEBAC long before it is set to expire in 2022.
“We’re also going to have to figure out this long-term stuff,” Malloy said. “We can wait until 2022 when the agreement comes up … or we can look at the most recent history that we’ve all individually experienced and come to the conclusion that maybe we have to go down a different road.”
Malloy would not explicitly say whether he is asking for public employees to return to the table before 2022, but he said he is “making a case” that he believes “is in everyone’s best interest.”
That case involves renegotiating contracts with unions, not raising taxes again, Malloy said. He said he believes the decision to raise taxes is “having an impact on (Connecticut’s) ability to attract businesses and jobs.”
Pointing to budgetary decisions made by former Republicans governors John Rowland and Jodi Rell, Malloy reiterated his claim that he inherited much of the state’s current fiscal situation. He said their decisions “routinely kicked the can down the road.”
Many of the speakers at the town hall urged the governor to search for more in savings rather than cutting spending or raising taxes. Malloy said the state has already identified a number of savings opportunities, but that savings alone could only be “a contributing factor” to closing the state’s budget deficit.