Publication: The Day
Norwich – No question. It was, as stand-up comics are wont to say, “a tough room.”
When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy returned to southeastern Connecticut Wednesday night for another “town hall” to defend his budget, he got an earful.
Even before he took the lectern in the City Hall’s council chambers – a venue so small the fire marshal had to turn away an angry crowd – people were shouting through bullhorns from the street, “Let us in! Let us in! We want to be heard!”
True, when the governor came on, he was met with cheers and loud applause, and like any good performer, he started with a joke.
“I always have a smile on my face when I come to Norwich,” he said, “even if it’s to get yelled at.”
But that smile faded soon enough.
His first questioner was John Ondusko of Norwich, who told him, “I am president of AFSCME Local 749, representing state employees of the judicial branch. And another thing: I voted for you.
“And I am absolutely stunned that you’re trying to get $2 billion out of state employees. I’m a math guy. I ran the numbers immediately, using the 50,000 approximate state employees, working it out to $20,000 per state employee per year over the next two years,” Ondusko said.
“Let me stop you right there,” said Malloy, “because people keep repeating this.”
Then he turned to state employee benefits and said, his voice rising in anger as he spoke, “Let me tell you this: If the other guy had gotten elected … you think he’d have the tax package I have? You think he’d stand in front of this audience and 16 other audiences and every other business group in the state and talk about the need for a balanced approach?”
Ondusko was unmoved.
“Two billion dollars in concessions from state employees,” he said, doggedly. “They’re not concessions. I call it a special tax on state employees.”
And the crowd roared.
Taxes were very much the subject of the night.
Joanne Philbrick of Norwich, who said she had recently moved back to Connecticut after living in “Taxachusetts” for 30 years, put it plainly. “I need to speak to you about what I call the silent majority, the senior citizens of Connecticut,” she said. “I live on a fixed income. Everytime I turn around, somebody wants another piece of my Social Security check.
“I worked all my life. I put my money in savings and 401(k)s for retirement, and the greed and corruption of Wall Street and the United States government robbed me.”
The room broke into applause and cheers.
“I cannot afford another tax,” she went on. “I will not go to the carwash. I will not take my dog to the groomer. I will not buy a car. And when everybody else says, ‘I’m not going to do that, either,’ we are going to be in a bigger pile of crap than we are now.”
Malloy responded, testily, with the same answer he’s pulled out at all the “town halls” before: that the $3.3 billion deficit the state is facing isn’t his fault.
“I didn’t create this problem,” he said. “I was hired to straighten it out. And you may not approve of the methods I’m going to use, but don’t blame me for what happened in state government, because I wasn’t a part of it.”
Not everyone who spoke was critical of Malloy.
Marcia Marien, for one, a certified public accountant from Norwich and president of the Connecticut Society of CPAs, congratulated Malloy on his efforts to fix the mess the state’s finances are in.
“We would like to thank you for what we believe are giant steps forward for the better financial condition of the state of Connecticut which you’ve taken in this budget,” Marien said. “Generally accepted accounting principles, not using debt to cover operating expenses, committing to fully fund the pensions, not shifting the burden to cities and towns.
“Nobody wants to pay more taxes, and nobody wants to have their services cut,” she said. “But right now what we’ve done is we’ve mortgaged our children’s and our grandchildren’s future over the past decades … so thanks for making the tough decisions.”
That, too, earned loud applause.
And William C. Spicer III of Noank said he had just created 50 new jobs in Noank, and he thanked Malloy for that.
“New jobs is the way to get out of this,” Spicer said. “We need you to succeed.”
But then Spicer, too, turned to taxes.
“We need to tweak what we’re doing for the boating industry taxes vis-à-vis Rhode Island,” he said. “Keep the boating taxes the way they are … because otherwise we’re just gonna call it the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation’s relief act.”