February 14, 2007
By MARK PAZNIOKAS, Courant Staff Writer
Gov. M. Jodi Rell grabbed the spotlight last week with a stunning proposal to increase the income tax rate by 10 percent for a $1.3 billion infusion of new revenue to boost spending for education, property tax relief and other initiatives.
A week later, Rell has yet to show how she intends to sell voters, constituency groups and legislators on her first tax increase and boldest initiative since becoming governor in 2004. Since phoning three radio shows Friday, Rell has been silent.
"Last Wednesday, she dropped a major bomb on the state Capitol," said Dean Pagani, a public relations consultant who was Gov. John G. Rowland's chief of staff. "Then it appears she walked off the stage."
Her chief of staff, M. Lisa Moody, said Tuesday the Rell administration will aggressively promote the education plan over the remaining four months of the legislative session, reaching out to business and education groups to build support for the biggest income tax jump since the levy was passed in 1991.
"She is going to work the issue," Moody said.
But Moody acknowledged that Rell's own communication staff has not been briefed on a still-evolving campaign that Moody says will include speeches to chambers of commerce, parent groups and teachers unions. Her press office is aware of no outreach beyond two calls Rell plans to make Thursday to two FM stations, KC101 and WCCC.
"The whole thing is baffling," said Jonathan Pelto, a communication strategist and former Democratic lawmaker. "The lack of an aggressive effort to sell the plan is just one more thing that leaves people confused about what the administration's intention really is."
In the governor's absence, the debate already is turning to potential gaps in the governor's budget. By including no increases for many social service and health care providers, legislators and advocates said Tuesday, Rell's budget has hidden deficiencies.
Rep. Denise Merrill, D-Mansfield, co-chairwoman of the appropriations committee, said filling those deficiencies could quickly chip away from the resources Rell wants to use for local education and property tax relief.
"I think we're looking at $400 million," Merrill said of the money that might be required to adequately fund nursing homes and other social service providers.
On Tuesday morning, leaders of nonprofit agencies packed a hearing room at the Legislative Office Building to decry the governor's budget. They were joined by Democratic and Republican legislators. Hours later, an association of nursing homes and their unionized workers joined together to deliver a similar message. Merrill stood with them.
Merrill said that lawmakers would not consider flat-funding nursing homes and social service providers, as Rell proposed in a budget delivered last week with great fanfare.
"It is a budget that invests in the generations - in this generation and the generations to come," Rell told lawmakers in a televised speech Feb. 7. "It makes unprecedented, long-term investments in education so that our state's future is built upon the most solid footing of all - our children."
Her budget director told reporters the same day that the budget was gimmick-free, but Rell acknowledged a day later that money likely would need to be added for health care and social services.
Pelto said Rell, in effect, was saying, "I recognize the budget I put in place is not a credible one."
The Republican governor has few allies in ushering her budget through the legislature. Republicans were horrified at seeing the leader of the party propose raising income taxes by $1.3 billion over two years, even though she also is calling for the elimination of the estate tax and property tax on cars.
Her only two surrogates to help sell the plan are Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele and newly elected Republican State Chairman Chris Healy, who each have been making the radio talk-show circuit. It was left to Healy to take on the toughest duty: appearances on three conservative shows that have denounced the governor's tax increase.
So far, GOP lawmakers are sitting on the sidelines, saying Rell must demonstrate that a tax increase is necessary.
Democrats, who hold more than two-thirds of all seats in the General Assembly, applauded Rell's ambition, but they will put their own stamp on the plan. Where Rell wants to raise the 5 percent income tax rate to 5.5 percent, Democrats already are talking about a graduated increase that imposes a bigger hit on higher incomes.
An open question is whether Rell will sit back for a few weeks and watch how the Democrats respond, or will she try to marshal public opinion?
Tom D'Amore, who was gubernatorial chief of staff to Lowell P. Weicker Jr. during the 1991 income tax debate, said he does not understand the claim that Rell needs to quickly sell her plan.
"It's pretty substantial what she is doing. It's going to take time to educate folks," said D'Amore, a political consultant. "I don't think there is any real ... necessity to be jumping on it overnight. You can let it sink in and seek what you are getting in feedback from folks."
Moody said her office already is sifting through invitations from chambers of commerce and education groups that long have demanded the state step up its investment in education.
"The constituency groups themselves will be surrogates," she said.
Other consultants with ties to both parties said, however, there will be no substitute for the governor's own voice.
"Look back at the few big reforms in Connecticut or nationally over the past generation," said Roy Occhiogrosso, a communications consultant and Democratic campaign strategist. "They were situations in which a chief executive took on a big issue and built a coalition of support."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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