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BRIDGEPORT -- Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Monday night became the first Connecticut governor in modern history to take a budget directly to the people, using the City Hall Annex as a stage for the raging national debate on higher taxes, reduced services and more givebacks from unionized state workers.
During a quick, hourlong public hearing before an overflow crowd of more than 500 people, Malloy offered his case, then answered 19 questions from a variety of people, including local gadflies, anti-tax tea party activists and state employees whom he has asked to find $1 billion in savings.
He may have started out nervously after an introduction from Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, but by the time the governor took the second set of overtime questions, he had gotten well past rehearsed talking points and detailed a deep belief for shared pain if the state is to overcome its $3.2 billion deficit in the budget that starts July 1.
The final question, from a state employee who reminded Malloy of $750 million in union concessions with then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell in 2009, set Malloy off. Malloy said plans for the 45,000 unionized state workers to find savings and givebacks totaling $1 billion a year in his two-year budget is a crucial component.
"Let's say we don't get any concessions," Malloy said. "Should we raise the taxes two and a half billion dollars or should we cut another billion dollars out of the safety net? I have to answer that kind of question. Because if we take $1 billion out of the safety net, there will be no safety net. If we take $1 billion and just lay off employees, what good would that have done?"
He said that a 2009 budget tactic of deferring $300 million in employee pension funds was by no means an actual savings, although state lawmakers counted it as part of the $750 million in concessions.
"What we were doing is simply not paying the money we owed," Malloy said. "That's not a savings. It really isn't, particularly when you consider that pensions in the state of Connecticut are funded at 52 percent -- the fifth worst in the nation. And the best agreement we could come up with was defer, on the state's part, $300 million in payments? Whatever those obligations ultimately are, we have to honor them."
"I understand this is a particularly difficult time in Connecticut history," Malloy said in his first town-hall style road show, stressing that he's trying to tackle the budget shortfall by spreading pain equally while remaining competitive with surrounding states.
Finch, who stood at the line of questioners asking them to identify themselves and be brief, said he appreciated Malloy's plan. "Keeping our safety net intact is something the big-city mayors are keen on, because cities must shoulder so much of the social-service burden in the state of Connecticut that smaller towns, suburban towns, do not have to shoulder," Finch said while introducing the governor.
After a 20-minute policy briefing, in which Malloy presented highlights of a plan that he believes will support businesses, local government and the less fortunate in need of social services, the governor took questions.
Tony Salerno, of Stratford, asked whether the state could cease, then roll back higher taxes at a point in the future. "Can you give back the taxes you're taking now?" Salerno asked.
"If we can we will," Malloy replied.
Outside the City Hall Annex, Bob MacGuffie of the Right Principles tea party group, met arrivals with a homemade placard asking for lower taxes.
"Cut the spending, cut the waste, get rid of some patronage jobs," MacGuffie said in an interview. "Make do with what we provide. Businesses are leaving the state."
Inside, MacGuffie, of Fairfield, got the fourth question, asking Malloy to "liberate" taxpayers from higher taxes, sparking applause from about 20 people. Others in the crowd included local Democrats, ordinary taxpayers, union activists in support of higher health care spending and Malloy administration employees.
"What I'm asking for is more from everyone," said Malloy, who announced the grass-roots listening tour last week after proposing a budget that includes $1.5 billion in new taxes; $1 billion in union concessions and worker-approved savings; and $780 million in spending cuts for the first year of the budget. He held similar public events during 14 years as Stamford's mayor.
After the event, one of 17 Malloy will hold over the next seven weeks, Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said Malloy might be the first governor in 40 years or longer to bring his budget message to state taxpayers for feedback.
"I think he deserves a lot of credit for engaging the public and going out and meeting them," McKinney said in a phone interview after watching the meeting on television. "I hope during the course of the meetings he'll understand how frustrated people are at the prospect of paying more taxes. I think that's the point I'm getting from constituents. People understand the tough times but they're hoping for more cuts in spending and I hope that message will sink in as he goes around the state."
Malloy will also be holding town hall meetings in Stamford (March 22), Greenwich (March 28) and Norwalk (April 4). The next one will be Thursday at 7 p.m. in Torrington's City Hall auditorium. They will end on April 6 in Danbury.