October 13, 2017

Shut out of budget talks, Malloy takes a stroll — to visit the press

The languid pace of Connecticut's bipartisan legislative budget talks prompted Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to stretch his legs Thursday. Trailed by staff and security, Malloy strode from his 2nd-floor office to a 4th-floor landing outside the press room at the other end of the State Capitol. It was his second visit in as many days.

Shut out of the negotiations for a week, the governor is doing his talking through the press, simultaneously reminding public and politicians of his parameters for a deal to end the impasse that has left the state without a budget since July 1. Malloy praised legislators for working and chided them for not coming to a deal.

He noted they talked for more than two hours.

"These are good people. I'm not casting aspersions on any leader. I suppose what I'm doing is taking a moment to address some frustrations people must be feeling in their homes around Connecticut tonight," said Malloy, a Democrat trying to pass his fourth and final two-year budget. "I'm not scolding anyone; I'm stating the obvious."

The rarely reticent Malloy declined to directly answer a question about whether the prospect of a bipartisan budget was magical thinking, a charade aimed at soothing voters tired of political deadlock, a plague of public of life in Washington that seems to have arrived in Connecticut like a seasonal flu.

But he came close.

The governor laid out facts that suggest Democrats and Republicans are separated by a fiscal chasm, despite the happy talk of progress legislative leaders displayed after another day of failing to strike a deal. The House speaker, in fact, enthused that the bipartisan sessions were making him a better person.

Malloy pointedly refused to say the talks were pointless, but he repeatedly mentioned what seem to be a series of irreconcilable differences.

For one, Malloy and the Democratic leadership insist that a major element of a GOP-crafted budget vetoed by the governor — hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to the University of Connecticut and other public higher-education institutions — is unrealistic. Another is Malloy's opposition to a GOP proposal to defer more than $300 million in pension payments and assume savings from pension changes that would be imposed in 10 years.

Malloy questioned how a bipartisan budget would pay for those items, given that House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, is adamant that her caucus will not support revenue increases beyond the $850 million or so in higher taxes and fees already embraced by the GOP.

"If the Republicans have moved on higher education, where's the money going to come from?" Malloy asked. "If there is no plan to steal pension money, then how is that money going to be raised?"

After laying out an argument that the bipartisan talks are pointless, Malloy denied doing so. "I'm not saying it's pointless," Malloy said.

He's only saying they appear to be hundreds of millions of dollars apart, and they can't agree on spending cuts or revenue increases.

"Here we are a week after leader-only meetings started, without significant progress," Malloy said. "I do remember in this process some number of days ago I said I thought they were hundreds of millions of dollars apart, and it's apparent that they remain hundreds of millions of dollars apart."

It's that kind of talk that gets a governor uninvited to the budget party.

The legislative leaders left their meeting Thursday upbeat and unanimous on one point: They are not ready to welcome Malloy or his budget staff back into the room, not with their habit of finding fault.

"We are definitely headed in the absolute right direction," Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven said as talks broke in the mid-afternoon. "We've still more hurdles to go, but we've worked out a lot of our differences."

"As long as we walked out of that room and we plan on coming back the next day or the next time, that means there's progress being made," said Klarides, the House GOP leader.

Legislators said they will continue to research several issues Friday and over the weekend, probably resuming talks among leaders on Monday. Both sides said they remain hopeful that a tentative, bipartisan blueprint for the next two-year state budget could be presented to Malloy next week, with the goal of having a vote the week of Oct. 23.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, has said the focus on a bipartisan deal has made the past two weeks "one of the most rewarding processes that I've probably ever undertaken as a legislator." He added, "It's still my absolute hope and optimistic side that we get to a deal, but I truly can say this has made me not only a better legislator, but a [better] person."

So, are they ready to share their good vibrations with the governor?

Senate President Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said, "We want to have a consensus, I think, before we do that."

Based on a statement Fasano issued after the governor's remarks, Malloy should not wait by the phone.

"The governor's daily press conferences and snide comments from the sidelines are extremely unproductive," Fasano said. "The governor has been nothing but an impediment to the budget process, and it has been helpful to remove him from our conversations. I appreciate and respect the efforts of Democrat legislative leaders who have been willing to work together in truly bipartisan negotiations and have thoughtful and productive policy discussions in recent days."

He reminded the governor they sent him one budget, which he vetoed. Malloy didn't need the reminder.

"I'm sure Republicans will say I vetoed their budget," Malloy predicted during his visit the 4th floor. "Well, their budget was out of balance, full of gimicks and games."

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