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BRIDGEPORT -- Noah Levine left his job in New London early Monday afternoon to find a front-row seat for the governor's town hall-style forum on the proposed state budget.
Levine, who is already putting two children through college, will soon pay for a third child's tuition -- assuming he doesn't first have to shutter the 50-year-old family business he runs. He fears the Rapid Car Wash customer base, already hurt by the recession, will wither if the governor's proposed 6.25 percent sales tax includes car washes.
"I'm already paying taxes on electricity and soap. How many times are you going to hit me?" asked Levine, who employs 10 people. "Instead of throwing us a life preserver, he's throwing us an anchor."
Levine was one of several hundred Connecticut residents who crammed into City Hall Annex auditorium Monday night to watch Gov. Dannel P. Malloy explain in his first of 17 town hall meetings a state budget proposal designed to hack into the estimated $3.2 billion state deficit.
The temperature inside the room steadily climbed as the bodies packed together and the opinions collided. The line of taxpayers seeking to question the governor stretched to several dozen deep. They spilled into the standing-room crowd in back, which sprawled into the hallway.
Malloy seized on the tense atmosphere, stating in his opening remarks, "I have to admit to you, I'm a little nervous. This is the first time, and I don't know how it's going to go -- how I'm going to be treated."
For the most part, he was treated congenially. The questions, which often came couched as statements, or even grievances, reflected the range of interests fighting for rank in any budget cycle, especially one as precarious as this.
Malloy drew the loudest cheers when he declared top priority is the creation of jobs through luring businesses to the state and coaxing companies already here to expand.
"We are in the hole we are in because we haven't had jobs," he said. "We've got to turn Connecticut into a job-producing state again."
Several times he drew tax-rate and budget-hole comparisons with neighboring states.
Bill Dunne, a corporate speech writer from Norwalk, wondered whether Connecticut instead is competing with states like Texas and North Carolina.
Malloy responded that most jobs that have left this state in recent decades have arrived in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island or Massachusetts.
"I'm not satisfied," Dunne said afterward. "This idea we're competing with them is ridiculous. Malloy keeps pretending our competition is in New York. Anyone who flees Connecticut for high taxes is going to those low- or non-tax states like Florida."
Mike Doyle, a Seymour resident and state employee in Bridgeport, asked Malloy why state workers who put money in deferred compensation plans can't borrow from those funds before retirement. He also asked why state funds can't help renovate the Palace and Majestic theaters downtown.
He also asked, "Our name is Bridgeport. Why can't we build a bridge to Pleasure Beach?"
Steve Brown, of Oxford, asked whether the proposed budget, which the governor billed as a "shared sacrifice," amounted instead to punishment for successful members of the middle class. Brown, a psychiatric social worker, complained that the wealthiest residents will be taxed at a much lower percentage of their total income.
In response, Malloy said that anyone buying a suit for more than $1,000 or a car for more than $50,000 would have to pay an extra 3 percent sales tax.
"And there are additional tax increases for the group you're talking about," the governor said.
Brown wasn't convinced.
Neither was Dawn Robinson, a Stratford woman who works for the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. She also asked whether the state's richest were doing enough to plug the budget hole.
Connecticut, Malloy said, is competing with neighboring states for wealthy taxpayers as well as jobs.
"We'll all be in more trouble if they leave," he said.
"And are there any benefits for those who stay?" Robinson asked.
"Yeah. They get to live in Connecticut."
Reach Tim Loh at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-330-6377. Follow at twitter.com/timloh.