Governor-Elect Dan Malloy is Going to Face Serious State Issues Come January
Lots of people expect a lot of things.
By Gregory B. Hladky
November 24, 2010
Hidden in the shadows of Connecticut’s monster deficit crisis is a rats nest of other nasty state issues waiting to trip up our new governor as his attention is locked in on budget survival.
Many of these problems aren’t directly budget-related, but nearly all will be more difficult to untangle given the butt-ugly realities of the $3.4 billion budget gap facing Governor-elect Dan Malloy.
The “other nightmares” list has just about everything a new governor might not want: political dilemmas, bureaucratic bungling, labor strife, racial tension, corruption and systemic inequities in the courts, schools and prisons.
And all of these are probably “going to continue to be lost, swept under the rug, put on the back burner,” says state Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, chairwoman of the Republican House caucus. She says one of Malloy’s biggest challenges will be finding the right people to “tackle some of these problems” while he’s engulfed in budget battles.
One particularly unpleasant example of these back-burner babies is reforming the way the Connecticut State Police respond to allegations of wrongdoing by troopers. Four years ago, a 13-month study by New York state law enforcement experts and our state attorney general’s office documented a pattern of abuse.
The report found top state police commanders routinely interfered with internal affairs investigations of allegations against state troopers that included sexual assault, running a “protection racket” for drug dealers, using shotguns to intimidate civilians, faking overtime and stealing state property.
“I don’t know where we are with that,” says state Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, co-chairman of the legislature’s Public Safety Committee. He says John A. Danaher III, who was public safety commissioner until earlier this year, was “reaching out to people within the department” to try and enact some of the reforms. (He resigned to become a state judge.)
State Auditor Robert G. Jaekle, whose office initially investigated some of the complaints that led to the study, says there “may have been some retirements or departures” by key state police officials, “But I don’t recall hearing of any demotions.” Jaekle says he’s not seen any of the study’s major recommendations enacted.
There was also a more recent memo detailing backlogs at the state’s crime lab that forced investigators to wait from six months to two years for some test results. “If it’s not the worst in the country, it’s close to it in terms of the backlog,” says state Rep. Michael Lawlor, an East Haven Democrat who is co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
Or how about the state of Connecticut’s long-troubled Department of Transportation?
The agency is now under its ninth commissioner in the past decade. Rell’s last commissioner was Joe Marie, who was appointed in 2008 to change the DOT from a highway-first organization to one emphasizing mass transit. Marie was forced out by the governor last spring as a result of murky sexual-harassment allegations. He denied any wrongdoing.
Having a high-speed revolving door on the commissioner’s office has made efforts to change the DOT a hell of a lot tougher.
In 2006, a project to widen Interstate 84 in Cheshire and Waterbury disintegrated into a chaos of bungled drainage systems, defective lights and railings, inept inspections, bankrupt contractors, criminal and civil investigations.
To date, no DOT employee has ever been disciplined or fired as a result of that debacle, which was blamed in part on budget-cutting measures dating back to a 2003 budget crisis.
“If you’re looking for major, systemic reform, I don’t think you can pull it off in a year or two,” Lawlor says.
Scott X. Esdaile, chairman of the Connecticut NAACP, issued a warning blast last week to alert Malloy he’d better pay a lot of attention to getting minorities into his administrative mix.
“We have to have a significant role at the table, not just a symbolic role where we’re seen but not heard,” says Esdaile. “Our urban areas produced Governor-elect Malloy,” he adds, pointing to minority votes in New Haven and Bridgeport that effectively put the Democrat over the top in a tight election. “They delivered big-time … and there should be a return on their investment.”
Esdaile says Malloy needs to do something about the lack of minorities among state judges and prosecutors, at key health care institutions like the hospital board of directors, and he insists Malloy must tackle the inequities in education between cities and the suburbs.
“Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything,” says Esdaile.
Malloy announced his 22-member transition team last week, and it included eight who are black or Hispanic.
Aside from all his other difficulties, Malloy is also likely to have some drop-dead dangerous labor problems — and not just asking state employee unions for hundreds of millions of dollars more in wage and benefit concessions.
In 2001, hundreds of Connecticut nursing home workers went out on strike. A series of 10-year agreements brought labor peace, which means at least 50 nursing homes will see their union contracts run out in March 2011.
Toni Fatone, who represented the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities until two years ago, says massive amounts of public Medicaid dollars comes to nursing homes through the state and that recent budget problems have resulted in “flat-funding” for the homes.
“Contract discussions will be extremely challenging because there’s no funding,” Fatone warns. “Whenever labor contracts expire, there’s always a risk of a strike.”
Meanwhile, the health care workers union (which worked its ass off to help elect Malloy) has called on the governor-elect to disavow a recent state policy of privatizing group homes for the developmentally or mentally disabled.
None of these examples may be as big a problem as the Department of Children and Families, which has for nearly two decades been under a federal court order requiring it to improve the way it takes care of neglected and abused children. Malloy and his new chief of staff, Timothy F. Bannon, have called finding the right commissioner for that agency a “very high priority.”
The one hope almost everybody has is that some of these seemingly intractable governmental ball-busters can be solved or improved as part of budget-related reforms.
Jaekle, who is stepping down as one of the state’s auditors of public accounts in January, believes there is room for optimism because of the fiscal crisis.
“I see some people rising to the challenge,” he says. “The bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity for change.”