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Rell, Echoing Her First Speech In 2004, Calls For End To Acrimony

JON LENDER

February 04, 2010

Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who is not seeking re-election, spent much of her final State of the State speech Wednesday urging legislators to choose civility over the partisanship that marred last year's lengthy budget battle.

"We need to stop the game-playing and name-calling and constant bickering," she said. "We need not speak glowingly of each other or of each other's ideas, but we must speak civilly."

It was a return to the elevated tone of her first speech, on July 1, 2004, upon succeeding scandal-plagued Gov. John G. Rowland. Back then, she talked of "ending the culture of corruption that has plagued our state for far too long."

Wednesday, it was as if she was trying to match 2004's front cover with an attractive back cover, after some messy pages in between.

"Let us replace acrimony with accommodation," the Republican governor said. "Let us set aside the difficulties and divisions of the last year and commit ourselves truly commit ourselves to working with one another."

This sort of occasion inspires reflections on an outgoing governor's legacy and Rell, herself, reflected: "I am proud of all that has been accomplished since I became governor: ethics and campaign finance reform; civil unions; the Charter Oak [medical benefits] program for the uninsured; ... new charter and magnet schools. ... The list goes on, and it will be added to before I leave office next January."

But Rell's legacy might have been sealed during her first year. For all else she has done and will do, she is likely to be remembered mainly as the lieutenant governor who rose to the governor's office and steadied the state after a historic corruption scandal just as Rowland will be remembered as the governor who went to prison, and Lowell P. Weicker's name will always be linked to the state's income tax.

So, putting aside the legacy, what's left in Wednesday's speech that will mean much during the three-month legislative session it officially opened?

Well, there were matters of substance, such as her proposal for a $100 million state investment to leverage a $500 million public-private " Connecticut Credit Consortium" for loans to businesses, as well as initiatives to address multibillion-dollar liabilities in state retirees' pensions and health benefits.

She also called for decisive action to cut a current deficit of $500 million and maybe another one of $3 billion in two years: "I intend to do everything in my power in my remaining months in office to make the changes that are needed to break insatiable spending habits and to make state government affordable once again."

But she didn't speak about some of her administration's new proposals to deal with the deficit, such as the electronic keno betting game, which would raise a projected $20 million in the first year.

Leaving keno out of the speech might be a simple matter of not wishing to speak at dinner about what one considers an unpleasant necessity but these big speeches by governors are always filled with rhetoric that floats above the thorny details.

And that leads back to the rhetoric of Rell's speech about working together, leading and taking action. Will it mean anything?

On the first day of the 2010 legislative session, at least, both Democratic and Republican leaders of the state Senate said it could.

"I think the governor had a chance to set a tone of greater civility this year, and not just pointing fingers and playing a blame game. I think she did that," said the leader of the Senate Democratic majority, President Pro Tem Donald Williams of Brooklyn. "I've tried to do the same thing. So let's work together. The people want to see us solve the problems."

One obvious obstacle to cooperation is that even with Rell bowing out, the entire legislature is up for re-election this November. But the Senate minority leader, John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said he's still hopeful.

"The governor struck exactly the right tone today," he said. "I think there's an understanding that the year we've just been through, and the session we've been though which was the most partisan in my 11 years was difficult on everyone. It reflected poorly on all of us as legislators, and I'm hopeful that people don't want to make that same mistake again."

Rep. Michael Lawlor, D- East Haven, said civility is fine, but it's not the key.

"The big problem right now is not the lack of civility. The big problem is a lack of communication," said Lawlor, co-chairman of the legislative judiciary committee. 'The judicial branch testified a little while ago that they can't even get their calls returned" by Rell's office about budget problems affecting courts, he said.

Lawlor said he and his committee co-chairman wrote a month ago to Rell to ask that she not nominate any new judges until the courts' critical budget issued are addressed, and they have yet to receive an answer from her. The only reaction, he said, was what he called this "snippy response" from Rell's press office to a reporter: "The views and opinions of Rep. Lawlor and Sen. McDonald are always warmly received and appreciated."

Lawlor added: "All we want to have is a conversation forget about a civil conversation."

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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