Malloy zeroes in on economy

Facing a competitive reelection battle in November, Gov. Dannel Malloy proposed tax refunds, increased spending on higher education, a higher minimum wage and a host of other new initiatives in his annual State of the State address Thursday morning.

The 42-minute speech presented a rosy picture of Connecticut’s economic recovery, laid out the governor’s agenda and presented his budget proposal for the coming year. Malloy focused on economic issues, promising $280 million in tax cuts over the next two years and tax refunds of $110 for families and $55 for individuals. He claimed these measures will create 1,200 jobs this year. He also proposed raising the minimum wage to $10.10, investing $10 million in the STEP UP program — an initiative that incentivizes the hiring of veterans and long-term unemployed people — and eliminating homelessness among veterans by 2015.

Malloy praised the Nutmeg State’s progress, but emphasized that Connecticut still has work to do, especially in addressing economic inequality.

“In order to keep this recovery going, we need to continue making thoughtful, even bold investments in our future, and in the future of our children,” Malloy said.

The governor devoted a large portion of his speech to discussing education, focusing on early childhood and higher education. He suggested committing Connecticut to the goal of universal pre-K and proposed plans to add 4,000 pre-K seats by 2019. He also announced a new program that would give each child born in the state a $100 college savings account and match parental contributions of up to $150.

Pat O’Neil, spokesman for the House of Representatives Republicans, said the lack of discussion of the state’s kindergarten through 12th grade reflected the governor’s desire to shift focus away from public schools, where teachers have criticized the hasty implementation of the Common Core curriculum.

“We heard a lot about pre-K, we heard a lot about post high school education,” O’Neil said. “We didn’t hear an iota of evidence about how he wants to address kindergarten through 12th because teachers are in open revolt over the Common Core curriculum.”

The address won praise from Democratic legislators who support Malloy’s plans to increase spending on education and unemployment reduction programs, and criticism from Republicans who claimed the governor is pandering to Democratic voters to improve his reelection odds.

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney said he found the governor’s proposals largely unsurprising, representing the renewal of Democratic goals that had been put on hold during the recession and economic recovery.

“We’re finally coming into a period of greater, positive economic activity,” Looney said. “I think that the things that the governor proposed, especially adding additional funding for job development, are building up the momentum that’s beginning towards acting.”

Laurence Grotheer, spokesperson for New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, said the mayor was largely pleased with the governor’s agenda and budget. However, he said Harp was hoping that the state government would increase funding for the Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) Program, which partially compensates municipal governments for revenue lost from tax-exempt organizations, such as Yale.

State Senator Leonard Fasano, who represents North Haven, Wallingford, East Haven and Durham, said he believed Malloy used the speech as a tool to garner votes rather than deliver a frank appraisal of Connecticut’s challenges.

“When you paint a picture of Connecticut that’s rosy for the sole purpose of garnering votes, I have serious issues with that type of speech,” Fasano said.

Several times in his speech, Malloy proposed policies that are also supported by President Obama. Gary Rose, chairman of the political science department at Scared Heart University, said Malloy may be hoping to capitalize on Obama’s popularity in the state.

“Even though he’s not on the ticket this year, I think in some respects Malloy is trying to connect to Obama’s coattails,” Rose said.

Rose, on the other hand, dismissed Republican allegations of pandering, and said governors facing reelection deliver the State of the State address with an eye towards November regardless of political affiliation.

Connecticut’s unemployment rate has gone from a high of 9.4 percent in 2010, down to 7.4 percent today.

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