By SUSAN HAIGH – Dec 20, 2010
By The Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The first chapter of M. Jodi Rell’s governorship of Connecticut began amid turmoil as she was thrust into the office after her predecessor resigned amid a corruption scandal and later went to prison.
Six years later, the final chapter of Rell’s tenure as governor is marked by a different type of turmoil: a state economy that’s been hit hard by the recession and a state budget that’s projected to be billions of dollars in deficit for years to come.
While her efforts to address Connecticut’s financial woes have yielded mixed results, Rell is more often praised for her ability back in 2004 and subsequent years to help the public rebound from the scandal that ensnared fellow Republican and former Gov. John G. Rowland and preoccupied the state.
“Many people have said to me it’s like the state needed a mother at the time and the mother came in and just said, ‘It’s OK. I know there have been problems, but we’re going to fix it, everything’s going to be OK,’” said Rell in an interview with The Associated Press.
“You tell people what you’re going to do and then you follow through on it,” she said, pointing to her first executive order that called for new rules for state contracting and reforms for making state government more ethical and accountable.
On Jan. 5, the 64-year-old mother of two and grandmother of four will leave office. Former Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy will take over, becoming the first Democrat to hold the job since former Gov. William A. O’Neill left in 1991.
Rell, a former lieutenant governor, has been tremendously popular through much of her tenure — the final two years of Rowland’s term that she filled out, and for much of her last four-year term following the 2006 election.
Quinnipiac University Poll Director Douglas Schwartz said voters liked Rell for her honesty and nonpartisan approach to the job. But once the economy began to worsen and, following a lengthy budget impasse with the Legislature’s majority Democrats, Rell decided in the fall of 2009 to allow a Democratic budget become law without her signature, her popularity began to take a hit.
“In the last year, she’s dipped to about 60 percent because of the economy. It finally began to take a toll on her,” Schwartz said.
After governing with a relatively healthy economy for much of her tenure, Rell now leaves the state with looming fiscal problems. The budget for the financial year beginning July 1 faces an estimated deficit of as much as $3.67 billion, or about 18 percent of estimated spending. The state’s rainy day fund has been drained, federal stimulus money has dried up and its pension funds are seriously underfunded.
While she acknowledges Malloy faces a tough task of balancing the budget next year, she maintains that no governor in the nation could have foreseen the magnitude of the economic downturn, which has taken a toll on employment — Connecticut boasts a 9.1 percent jobless rate — and subsequently state revenues. Connecticut, she said, was especially vulnerable because of the state’s over-dependence on tax revenue from wealthy Fairfield County residents who can easily leave the state. Many also were affected by the crisis in the financial services industry and major losses in the stock market.
Efforts were made, Rell argues, to put the state on sound fiscal footing. She doesn’t believe she and the state employee unions got enough credit for the $700 million labor concessions deal they struck two years ago, which included lasting cost-savings, such as requiring that a worker’s age and years on the job add up to 75 years before they can retire and higher medical co-payments.
Yet, she maintains that her tools for tackling the state’s budget problems were limited given that the Democratic controlled legislature, which had enough votes to override her vetoes, refused many of her spending reduction proposals, such as cutting many state boards and commissions. She says a “folded-arm attitude” developed during the later years of her administration from the Democrats, who she said were often disinterested in working with her.
Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, maintains that Democrats were always trying to work with Rell.
He pointed to how Democrats once offered to support changes Rell wanted for the estate tax, in return for an earned income tax credit for the poor. In the end, Looney said, Rell balked.
“If anyone folded arms, it was her,” he said. “We are always willing to negotiate.”
Looney said Rell’s greatest achievements came early, such as her support of the state’s public financing system for political campaigns. Rell has also been credited for boosting funding for transportation, local education and supporting civil unions among gay and lesbian couples.
Yet Looney said Rell probably could have used her popularity to take on more bold initiatives.
“She had so much popularity and good will going on,” he said. “I don’t think she necessarily drew on that reservoir as much as she could.”
Oz Griebel, chairman of the MetroHartford Alliance business organization and a Republican candidate for governor earlier this year, said not a lot was expected early on of Rell, who also been a state representative.
“I think people cut her a lot of slack when she succeeded John,” he said. “We wanted a change. So, in some ways it almost didn’t matter what she did or didn’t do.”
But the job has since changed, given the bad economy. And Griebel said it’s clear Malloy wants it.
“I don’t care if it’s in politics or business or athletics or music, pick whatever your subject matter is,” Griebel said. “One set of skills and experience that allow you to succeed in one role aren’t necessarily the same skills and sets of experience that allow you to succeed in a different role.”
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