New Havenites gave Gov. Dannel Malloy an earful Wednesday night.
In a town hall meeting at Wilbur Cross High School, the governor responded to questions and criticisms of the budget he proposed Feb. 16. Malloy, who is working to close a $3.6 billion state budget gap with a mix of tax hikes, service cuts, and state employee concessions, came to New Haven as part of a 17-stop tour which began Feb. 21 in Bridgeport. Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who introduced the governor, said Malloy is the first governor during his eighteen years as mayor to make an effort to discuss state budget issues with the public.
In the auditorium of the East Rock High School, Malloy, the first Democratic governor the state has had for over two decades, heard a packed audience’s applause for calls for higher taxes on the wealthy, universal statewide healthcare, and middle-class job security amid budget cuts.
The crowd’s most powerful reaction came when Joann Jones, a New Haven resident, said “the super rich are not paying their fair share” in Malloy’s budget, which raises income taxes on the state’s top earners by 0.2 percent.
Malloy responded that his proposals would create five new income tax brackets in addition to the small increase on the wealthiest residents. In passing, he added that a major reason he would not want to raise taxes on the wealthy any further is his desire to keep Connecticut attractive relative to other states in the region.
The audience put Malloy on the defensive again after New Haven resident Lateefa Williams called on him to speed up the establishment of SustiNet, a statewide universal healthcare program. The program was passed into law in July 2009 over the veto of former Gov. M. Jodi Rell, but Malloy has made his skepticism about the program’s timeline clear, citing the need to determine how it would interact with the federal healthcare reform passed by Congress last year.
“Do you believe healthcare is a human right?” Williams asked Malloy, pushing him to answer whether he would support SustiNet.
While Malloy said he supports the goals of the program, he cannot yet make a final decision on its implementation.
The audience appeared evenly divided on the issue of state employee concessions.
Several active and retired state employees were met with applause when imploring Malloy not to balance the budget on their backs. But Malloy found support for his charge that state employee benefits need to be reined in to make the budget sustainable.
Jack Doyle, a state prosecutor in New Haven, said he worries that cutting state employee benefits would lead to fewer talented people seeking government jobs.
But Malloy shot back that most Connecticut citizens perceive the benefits packages afforded state employees to be far more generous than their own. He added that unlike other governors, most notably Scott Walker of Wisconsin, he is not attempting to strip state employees of their collective bargaining rights or plug the entire budget gap with labor concessions.
Another state prosecutor, David Clifton, said the governor’s demand of $1 billion from state employees in the coming year and another $1 billion next year was simply unreasonable. With 45,000 state employees, the concessions would amount to about $20,000 per employee, Clifton said.
As a recent hire, Clifton said he would be the first to be laid off from his office if the budget cuts became too burdensome. He is already looking at his resume, he said.
“You don’t need to do that,” Malloy said. “This is not going to be easy for anyone, but you and I know that the nature of the relationship [between the state and its employees] is unsustainable.”
Malloy added that higher-paid management employees earning will also have to sacrifice, meaning the average state worker will not have to give up $20,000 out of pocket this year.
The governor summarized his approach to the budget by recalling themes from his campaign last fall against Republican businessman Tom Foley.
Foley, Malloy said, promised to balance the state’s budget solely through spending cuts and without raising taxes at all. Malloy, who said his $1.5 billion tax hike proposals were a last resort, said the state can neither tax nor cut its way to fiscal health.
“I refused to pledge no new taxes, and I was willing to lose the election rather than lie to people,” Malloy said. “Now at least I can stand here and look you in the eye.”
Malloy heads to Greenwich, Conn. on March 28 for his next town hall meeting.