It isn’t easy being governor

September 26, 2018

There’s nothing like the platform postures of this year’s gubernatorial hopefuls to send us back for another look at what Gov. Dan Malloy said he would do, did do, or could not pull off. Doubtless his successor will find himself equally challenged — and then, what happens to the campaign promises?

When a lame duck governor’s approval rating is around 17 percent and has been for a long time among the lowest in the country, he is obviously doing some widely unpopular things — which warrants a second look at how the governor has turned off so many. Has the governor been trying to practice tough love? 

Governor Malloy did in fact make some tough choices in a job that — better face it, Mr. Lamont, Mr. Stefanowski and Mr. Griebel — is relentless and thankless. While the candidates attempt to convey what they could do better, voters might benefit from a reminder of Malloy administration efforts to tackle the same perennial issues. Comparisons could help voters choose.

The governor’s biggest failure was in not getting more concessions from state employee unions, although he did get some. Our judgment is that over eight years he should have been able to make the case that those did not go far enough. As it is, the state is many years from the job turnover that will mean a preponderance of newer hires getting leaner benefits packages.

Certainly, many state labor union members think the concessions went too far, but that’s in large part because they grew accustomed to benefits that the private sector long since surrendered as unsustainable. No one disputes that Malloy inherited a problem that previous governors and legislatures kicked down the road. It awaits the next effort by the next governor.

Anyone trying to balance a budget is going to get beaten up, and the next governor can bet that will happen to him as well. Economic recovery has been slow but moving. Income tax revenue is having a banner year so far, thanks in part to the bullish stock market that also benefits the state’s investments. The temptation to raid that pantry will be strong.

The rate of most crimes is down and the incarceration rate for men under Malloy’s Second Chance program has gone low enough to allow fewer state prison beds. Women’s rate of incarceration is steady. Homelessness reached an all-time low. The number of fatal overdoses from opioid abuse appears to be stabilizing after years of climbing.

The Malloy administration can legitimately take credit in each of those areas. When a candidate talks about people fleeing Connecticut taxes or about “social programs,” or declines to say where he will make budget cuts, voters need to weigh what lower rates of crime, incarceration, homelessness and fatal drug use contribute to the quality of life here.

It’s interesting to speculate what it will be like if Democrat Ned Lamont gets elected with a Republican-dominated General Assembly, or if Republican Bob Stefanowski were to have to govern with the Democrats in control of the legislature, or what would happen if Oz Griebel gets elected with either party in the majority. There’s a certain appeal for the top dogs in the legislature to have an opposition governor to spar with.

In the last two years, Connecticut residents have heard Senate Republican President Pro Tem Len Fasano as the mouthpiece for his party in criticizing just about everything Malloy has done or said. The Senate has operated with an even split, 18-18, giving Fasano a sizable bullhorn.

But in Malloy’s first term, starting in 2011, his own party was in control, and his fellow Democrats in the legislature had to get used to playing second string to the governor. During the administrations of Republicans John Rowland and Jodi Rell, Democrats in the General Assembly spoke for the party in state government. With Malloy at the helm their choice was to echo the governor or keep still.

It’s a moot point now, but we suspect that the lackluster response of some Democrats to the governor’s big ideas — or their beholdenness to state labor unions — contributed to the fact that some of his worthwhile projects, such as the bold transportation plan, never truly got moving.

Promises are optimistic; reality is relentless.

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