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Rell's Budget Politically Appealing: Does It Add Up?

MARK PAZNIOKAS

February 05, 2009

Gov. M. Jodi Rell delivered a budget Wednesday praised as politically deft and panned as fiscally unsound.

In a spare, tightly focused speech, Rell framed her $18.8 billion budget proposal as an attack on a bloated, self-serving bureaucracy. And, for the first time in months, Rell left politicians in both parties with the impression that she was a candidate for re-election in 2010 or, at the very least, preserving her options.

"It was very powerful," said New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, the Democrat she defeated in the 2006 race for governor. "It touched a lot of the right bases."

The Republican governor promised not to cut municipal aid or raise taxes, provisions that could help her outflank the Democratic legislature by winning over Democratic municipal officials, who applauded the governor.

But her budget came with a significant flaw: a reliance on revenue estimates that the legislature's nonpartisan budget office says are grossly optimistic. If the budget office is correct, that means Rell failed to propose a balanced budget. Democrats say it has a built-in deficit of $3 billion.

"It's another partial deficit-mitigation plan, rather than a comprehensive budget," said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven.

"It punts to the legislature the politically hard work," said Rep. John Geragosian, D- New Britain, the appropriations committee co-chairman. "It is a partial effort, but it is not a serious effort."

Still, Democrats conceded that Rell, who appeared listless and ill-focused to them during last month's State of the State address, was back on her game.

Rell cast herself Wednesday as thrifty, flinty and reassuring.

"As your governor, I will lead as we find our way, safely and surely, through these turbulent times," Rell told a joint session of the General Assembly.

A month ago, she spoke to a legislature that sat in stony silence. On Wednesday, she was interrupted numerous times by applause, led by the Republican minority.

Democratic mayors in the House chamber, faced with the challenge of balancing their own budgets, joined Republicans in vigorously applauding Rell's call to eliminate mandates and suspend binding arbitration for two years.

Rell reached at times for poetry, quoting Abigail Adams' lyrical musings on character and virtue in the face of great challenge:

"When a mind is raised ... then those qualities which could otherwise lay dormant wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman."

"Help me contend with the difficulties as I lead our state," Rell said. "Be virtuous. Raise your minds."

But the heart of her speech was textbook Rell: a direct, homespun appeal that she seemed to direct over the heads of legislators to the public.

"The reason she has the high approval ratings is that when she talks, whether it's on TV or behind that podium, everybody watching it gets a feeling she is talking right at them," said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk.

"She is a regular, down-to-earth person," he said. "That's always been her strength."

Cafero's relationship with the Rell administration has been strained. He broke with her publicly two years ago when she proposed an income-tax increase. At the time, he and other Republicans accused Rell of turning her back on the GOP base.

But there was no Republican sniping Wednesday, publicly or privately.

"I'm thrilled with this, to be honest," said Chris Healy, the Republican state chairman, who also has had his difficulties with Rell. "I can sell this. I can defend this any day. And there is no tax increase across the board, which is also a home run."

Healy said rank-and-file Republicans in Connecticut have applauded the early and consistent warnings Rell has delivered about the depth of the current fiscal crisis.

The Republicans are well aware that their numbers are shrinking in Connecticut. The GOP's voter registration is down, the party lost its last member of Congress from Connecticut, and the party holds fewer than one-third of the seats in the assembly.

Rell is their only star.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said Rell offered a budget in tune with the times and the mood of Republicans and Democrats. He said Rell's opposition to taxes was based on economics, not politics.

"I don't think that is a Republican idea any longer. President Obama stands before the nation and says, 'We should not be raising taxes at this time.' So it doesn't make sense that it's good for President Obama and not good for Gov. Rell."

Rell also displayed a feisty side, challenging critics.

"To those who would disparage or dismiss the cuts or reforms my budget contains: You have that right. But you also have the obligation to put your specific alternatives on the public table and to do it soon."

Even as they praised her performance, the Democrats said the real test will come as her proposal is closely evaluated and the public learns of the harm her cuts will inflict on the state's poor, its elderly and disabled.

"As we go forward in the coming days and hours and hold the budget up to the light, it's got to pass the fairness test," said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.

A veteran House member said Wednesday was simply the start of a long, difficult process.

"It's just the first move in the chess game," said Rep. Robert Godfrey, D- Danbury. "Now, it's our turn."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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