Could Malloy have done more for CT economy?
Around noon on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, less than a month after the Sandy Hook tragedy, I was on the phone with a Connecticut firearms industry executive when a press release from the governor’s office popped up on my email feed.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was announcing his Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, a 16-member panel that would recommend changes in school safety, mental health and violence prevention. Emotions remained raw for Malloy, who had taken charge of that horrific scene on Dec. 14, telling parents their children were not coming home.
Who would sit on the commission from the industry? The executive knew nothing of it.
The group, as I reported in a column in The Hartford Courant, included professionals from education, public safety, criminal justice, politics and security — but not one person from the state’s historic gun manufacturing business, or from firearms sales. The executive told me someone from the industry would have gladly served.
It was not an oversight. Malloy made no effort to hide the slight, telling me at the time that a firearms executive, in bed with the National Rifle Association, would only try to block progress on gun control.
Today, as the 63-year-old Malloy spends his final weekend in office after eight years as governor, his view of that moment remains unchanged.
“No big player would have served on that commission except to derail what was going to be undertaken,” Malloy said in a late-December interview in his office at the state Capitol in Hartford. “The NRA has a history here ... quite frankly I didn’t think it made any sense.”
He added, “How do you think the families would have reacted if we had the manufacturer of the guns that killed 20 children and other adults on a commission ... and knowing what those companies’ public positions are, and knowing that they’re funding the NRA, who was fighting already by that date tooth and nail any change, how do you think that would have made them feel?”
If Malloy’s leadership in the firehouse after the massacre stands as the exemplary moment of his tenure — and it does — the way he went about pushing through the state’s landmark, bipartisan gun control legislation three months later perfectly illustrates how he governed. Headstrong, with a clear idea of what he wanted; less willing to compromise than a typical politician; with a masterful grasp of the issues, and an intense engagement that lent a moral force to much of what he did.
The big question is not how to describe the former 14-year Stamford mayor’s style of management and leadership. Rather, it is whether a softening of his intensity might have led to different results, especially in economic growth, the big disappointment that’s reflected in his near-record low approval ratings.
I asked, if he were better able to compromise, would things have been better for the economy and for the way the state views his governorship?
“That’s kind of like, okay, ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’” Malloy answered.
His point: He compromised plenty, when it made sense. To enact real changes, rather than go along, get along, he butted heads with state employees, teachers, mayors and first selectmen, hospital administrators (in a big way), package store owners, high-income earners from his part of the state, hardline law enforcement advocates and, oh yes, gun manufacturers.
“You’re saying ‘Well, couldn’t you have compromised your integrity?’ And the answer is no.”
Too tough or not tough enough?
His point on integrity doesn’t just cover criminal justice and the law that followed his life-changing experience at Sandy Hook. Take, for example, the pension and health care liabilities, which are underfunded by perhaps $60 billion.
Critics, and there are many, say Malloy simply didn’t squeeze enough pay and benefit concessions from current state employees. He did create two new tiers of employees, each with lower benefits than the last, and he exacted health care changes and payments, along with five pay freezes, although he also allowed raises of 3.5 percent in two non-freeze years.
He also cut the ranks of full-time state employees by at least 3,000, and many more if we include part-time workers.
“I don’t think there was any easy fix,” Malloy said. “Name another state that cut those obligations by $40 to $45 billion. You will not find one.”
That savings came about because he insisting on making full payments into the funds — and raising taxes to do so.
Another cost was extending the state employees’ benefits package out five more years to 2027. That’s because the unions helpd the
“Would a compromise be, to be like every other governor and ignore it as well, or make it worse? That’s a compromise I was incapable of making.”
Out of the room
In part becaue of his style, Malloy ended up with fewer Democrats fighting on his side than we’d expect to see from an activist governor in the majority party, a former longtime city mayor who favors public investments.
That was never more evident than in the late summer and fall of 2017, with a state budget months overdue and Malloy ousted from the negotiation room. He realized he could no longer be at the table, he said in the recent interview, the moment the state Senate rejected a budget he and fellow Democrats had crafted, with three Democrats joining Republicans.
“Instantly, when the budget went down I had no expectations of being in the room after that,” he said. “I don’t think anything was said for a while, but how could I be in the room when the Democrats realized they didn’t have to do what I wanted them to do, what they had negotiated with me?”
Did that bother him, not being in the talks for his final 2-year budget? He’ll talk plenty about shortcomings in the plan, such as the so-called volatility cap, which requires tax collections from capital gains over a certain amount to go straight into a rainy-day fund. “It’s inartful language that has consequences that probably were unintended.”
But feelings about being locked out of the room? “No I don’t have feelings about it.”
Huge reforms, no growth
No one can deny Malloy got an enormous amount done, and just in case they try, he issued a 283-page retrospective in December, as part of his last legacy lap.
“I’m leaving office very proud of what my team has accomplished and as I’ve said to a few people, I’d rather be coming in as governor this January than in January of 2011,” he said.
That includes a rainy-day fund of more than $2 billion, up from a negative $900 million when he arrived, if we count the amount of debt former Gov. M. Jodi Rell left him to pay for regular state operations. It includes two new tiers of state employees, each with lower benefits than the ones before. It includes a refinanced state employee pension fund.
And contrary to popular belief, it includes more Fortune 500 companies, not fewer; lower spending on state agencies, not more; it includes more billionaires, not fewer, though of course $1 billion isn’t what it once was. And it includes a better record of job-creation than any Connecticut governor in the last 28 years, though the gains lag almost all other states.
The former federal prosecutor enacted sweeping reforms and projects in transportation, housing, education, criminal justice, state workforce management, pensions and, of course, violence prevention.
So, as we look back at the Malloy record, that oddity — he didn’t play as well in the sandbox as he might have, yet he enacted bigger reforms in more areas than any governor in memory — keeps leading to that nagging question: Could Malloy have bent the curve on economic growth?
Here’s the harsh fact that will haunt Malloy’s legacy. From the four quarters ending at the start of 2011, when he took office, to the four quarters ending last June — the latest figures available — the Connecticut economy shrank by 2.5 percent, adjusted for inflation. In those same years, the national economy grew by 14 percent.
“I don’t think there’s something that I could have done that would have changed that, but there may be,” he said. “People don’t realize how ... damaged Connecticut was in the Great Recession because of bad policy that had been enacted over a 20- or 30-year period of time before the recession, and a lack of investment in things like infrastructure.”
This past year was a good one for the state’s economy, the best since 2007, raising hopes.
Policy, not personality
As Ned Lamont prepares to take the oath Wednesday, many people are talking about his collaborative, easier-going style as a way to win over companies and reach compromises at the Capitol. Makes sense on some levels.
Does that matter to the economy? If the answer is no, Malloy couldn’t have brought more growth, then his style is just a curious quirk in the eyes of history.
Roy Occhiogrosso, the political consultant who had more to do with Malloy’s election than anyone, points to money Malloy had to spend to right the pensions, and taxes he had to raise to balance a budget that was $3.6 billion out of whack when he took office.
“You’re talking about billions and billions of dollars that he could have invested in growing the economy,” Occhiogrosso said. “What he has done is set up future governors, starting with Gov. Lamont … to be able to make investments that he was unable to make.”
As for his style, Malloy’s former top aide said, “look at some of the deals that he was able to close in part because of his personality.”
That included 20 large corporate incentives, which will forever be the subject of debate.
A softer, more compromising style might have made a small difference at best, said Joseph Brennan, who, as president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and the group’s former chief lobbyist, often disagreed with Malloy, notably on tax increases.
“Would it have made a difference around the margins? It might have, making people feel a little more comfortable in their position as corporate leaders, if they had a different relationship than they had, but overall I don’t think it would be a huge change to our economy.”
Brennan adds that he gets along fine with Malloy. And Malloy insists he had a working, often cordial, relationship with many CEOs. He rattles off names: Cigna, Travelers, United Technologies, Sikorsky, Electric Boat, Comcast/NBC Sports. Most received aid packages to come here, or stay.
‘A political being’
Malloy, in short, recognizes his reputation but thinks it’s not a factor in how the state has unfolded on his watch.
Even his relationship with Aetna’s Mark Bertolini, a critic of Connecticut, wasn’t as bad as people think, Malloy said. “My first meeting with Bertolini he was screaming at me … I represented Obamacare to him and he didn’t like it.”
But he adds, “we got along.”
He concedes his infamous remark in 2012 about teachers — they just have to “show up for four years” and tenure is theirs — was “the wrong verbiage,” but he points to reforms that “made it unacceptable to ignore the crisis in the urban and poor environments.”
“Having a graduation rate that was ... substantially higher than we’ve ever had would not have come about without some tussle,” he said.
Looking ahead, as Malloy starts a gig teaching law at his alma mater, Boston College, he said, “I will continue to be a political being” without any plans to work again in government.
“I’m going to advocate on behalf of refugees, I’m going to advocate on behalf of gay, lesbian, transgender, queer individuals, I’m going to advocate on behalf of good educational policy ... .to stop throwing away a third of our children .. I’m happy to raise my voice, I just can’t guarantee anyone will listen.”
And looking back, he’s satisfied he didn’t miss chances to change that one, nasty statistic.
“Sitting here today,” he said, “I do not know what I could have done to have Connecticut’s economy recover more rapidly.”