Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Imagine, a governor who's a mensch

The anti-Christi.

Mr. Malloy grew up with dyslexia and physical disabilities. He still cannot write or type. And as he closes a 20 percent budget deficit, he spends much of his energy finding ways to spare the most vulnerable.

But what is most striking about Mr. Malloy, a Democrat, is that just six weeks after taking charge of such a mild-mannered state, he is publicly taking shots at his celebrated counterpart in New Jersey, attacking his politics and policies, his intellect, even his personality.

“Being bombastic for the sake of being bombastic,” Mr. Malloy said, “has just never been my take on the world.”

Like Mr. Christie and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, Mr. Malloy, 55, is a former prosecutor: he tried felony cases in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office before moving to Stamford, where he was mayor for 14 years. He has inherited a state hobbled by bad fiscal habits and bills that piled up as hard choices were avoided.

Unlike his counterparts, though, he has set out to prove that even in an age of austerity one can govern as a defender of the social safety net.

As a candidate last year, he took a beating for refusing to forswear tax increases. He also promised not to gut education or shift the costs of services on to cities and towns. (He also stuck by his opposition to the death penalty while a gruesome triple-murder trial riveted the state, and wants to treat possession of less than an ounce of marijuana like a traffic ticket.) He won by barely half a percentage point.

As governor, Mr. Malloy laid down ground rules. He said spending, which was on a course to grow by $1.8 billion, would remain flat. He said he would not borrow to cover operating expenses, as the state previously did. He promised to pay the state’s pension obligations fully and to make costly catch-up payments for years they were skipped. He ruled out early retirement plans, saying they really did not save anything and only stretched the pension system thinner. And he imposed strict accounting standards to bring more transparency to the state’s balance sheet.

The strategy was simple: demonstrate a willingness to make tough cuts first; then demand sacrifice from labor; and only then ask the public to go along with tax increases.

That, of course, puts him in direct opposition with Governors Christie and Cuomo, who say their citizens are already overtaxed.

But Mr. Malloy does not apologize for proposing tax increases.

“It’s what’s right for my state,” he said. “Connecticut would not be Connecticut if we cut $3.5 billion out of the budget. We are a strong, generous, hopeful people. We’d be taking $800 million out of education. You can’t do that in this state. You’d have to gouge the Medicaid system. You’d have to close 25 percent of the nursing homes. What do you do with people?”

Nor is he shy about trying to avoid public-sector layoffs, which would result in the opposite of a stimulus, he has said, since teachers and clerks spend most of what they earn.

“I’m not sure that some governors just don’t want to lay off people for the sake of laying off people and being able to say they did,” he said, speaking of those who may have their sights on seeking national office, say in 2016. “I think there’s a certain collection of merit badges that’s going on here.”

Ooh, snap.

It remains to be seen -- in the Nutmeg State as well as at the national level -- whether reasoned political discourse, rational policy, and a refusal to make only the poorest sacrifice, will result in good politics and policy.

I hope so.

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