State Budget Drama Casts Long Shadow Over Local Races

As she made her way along Ridgewood Drive, past Colonials adorned with mums and pumpkins, Democratic Mayor Claudia Baio heard a familiar refrain from frustrated voters.

"Things are going well in town but the state is a total mess,'' Joe Johnson, a 65-year-old Republican, told Baio after she knocked on his door seeking his support in the upcoming local election. "When they start cutting us on the schools and all that, then Rocky Hill's going to go down hill, too."

Similar discussions are playing out on doorsteps across the state this fall, as municipal candidates fan out among a restive electorate in search of votes.

The state legislature's inability to pass a state budget that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy would sign into law has spawned months of angry finger pointing and partisan recrimination at the Capitol. On the local level, it has created headaches for many leaders, who are dealing with steep reductions in education aid, lost money for road and bridge repairs and a host of other cuts. On Monday, Moody’s Investors Services said the lack of budget is threatening the credit and financial health of dozens of Connecticut towns that rely on funding from the state.

Voters won't have the chance to vent their anger at state lawmakers until legislative elections in November of 2018. But the local races of 2017 could turn into a proxy war for the state political parties and provide a preview of next year's rough and tumble governor's race. Malloy announced earlier this year that he is not seeking reelection and about two dozen candidates from both parties have entered the race or are considering it.

Republicans, who have been steadily gaining seats in the legislature since 2010, hope this fall's municipal races will provide a preview of more success next year. "The Democratic brand is finally being held accountable for their failures in this state,'' said JR Romano, the executive director of the Republican party in Connecticut.

Leigh Appleby, spokesman for the state Democratic party, said Republicans bear the blame for the budget impasse. The Republican-written budget, which passed the legislature in mid-September with a smattering of Democratic support but was vetoed by Malloy, would have created more pain for many cities and towns, he said.

“The GOP proposal was reflective of their party's priorities on all levels: cutting education funding for middle class communities at the same time they gave huge increases to some of the wealthiest towns in the state,’’ Appleby said. “That's why town committees and activist organizations are hard at work electing Democrats up and down the ballot.”

Local races typically turn on local issues, such as public safety, economic vibrancy and the quality of the schools. And in small towns, personal relationships are usually a bigger factor than ideological agendas.

But this year, with many voters in a sour mood over factors ranging from economic uncertainty to the Trump presidency, outside factors may play an outsized role in shaping the results.

“If voters are really unsatisfied with the way Malloy is handling this, they could take it out on candidates on the local level,’’ said Gayle A. Alberda, assistant professor of politics and public administration at Fairfield University.

“The ins and outs and the idiosyncrasies of the budget document are not necessarily something voters care about,’’ Alberda said. “But when it hits their pocketbook… when their car tax increases or their school budget gets cut, voters start to notice those things and now it’s effecting their daily life and that’s when we see the shift.’’

Political insiders aren’t sure how voter volatility will play out on Nov. 7: off-year elections without a marquee race generally draw an extremely low turnout, Albreda said.

And while Republican leaders hope to use the fiscal crisis as a talking point against the Democrats, who hold the governor’s office and a majority in the House of Representatives, the impasse could tarnish the GOP brand as well. Anger over the state budget crisis could fuel an anti-incumbent impulse, which would hurt Republicans more because they hold the majority of municipal offices.

In some ways, Rocky Hill would appear immune to the fiscal stresses that have roiled some Connecticut towns. Even with its education cost sharing grant eliminated under an executive order signed by the governor, this Hartford suburb of about 20,000 hasn’t had to raid its reserves or make huge cuts. Unlike most Connecticut communities, which are losing school population, enrollment here is booming. And Rocky Hill did not make Moody’s warning list.

But Lisa Marotta, the Republican candidate challenging Baio for the mayor’s seat, said town leaders have not responded aggressively enough. (The mayor’s race also incudes Henry Vasel, a former mayor and member of the council who is running on an independent slate, as an alternative to the two major parties.)

“The cuts in ECS funding will really harm us,’’ said Marotta, a lawyer in private practice who also works as a special prosecutor for the state Division of Criminal Justice. “But our current council is taking a ‘wait and see’ approach.”

Baio, who is also a lawyer, said she has been talking with other local leaders to speak out against steep cuts in municipal aid. “People whatever their affiliation, are frustrated at the state level,’’ she said. “Fortunately, because we’ve been really stressing about it and working our tails off, Rocky Hill so far is OK.’’

Along Ridgewood Drive, Baio ran into some acquaintances from the South End of Hartford, where she grew up. She heard from voters with local concerns, including a couple that wanted to know if there was a suitable spot in town to build new soccer fields.

But when the subject turned to the state budget, friendly chit chat dissolved into disapproving shakes of the head.

“I just cant believe they can’t get one together,’’ said Donna Campanello, a 58-year-old Democrat. “I can understand why people are leaving Connecticut like flies.. as soon as they graduate, they look for jobs elsewhere. It is discouraging.”

One of Campanello’s three children left the state after graduating, but the out-of-work bookkeeper said family ties will keep her in Connecticut. Still, she said she is apprehensive about the future.

Joe Johnson blames Malloy and the state employee unions for for the budget standoff. Johnson’s wife is a retired state worker and he said he is embarrassed by the generosity of her retiree health benefits.

“Why did Malloy veto the budget the Republicans made up and the Democrats supported?” Johnson asked. “I think he’s in bed with the unions.”

Malloy said he rejected the budget because it contained too many gimmicks, made unsound deferrals of state employee pension payments and would have decimated public higher education.

In reliably liberal West Hartford, which the GOP hadn't controlled since the early days of the George W. Bush administration, anxiety runs deep. The state’s budget crisis has put the town’s vaunted AAA bond rating, long a point of municipal pride, in jeopardy: Moody’s rating agency hs assigned West Hartford a negative outlook.

Chris Williams, a Republican seeking his second term on the town council, said voters are more receptive to the notion that business as usual won’t work any more.

“The state is in a fiscal crisis that’s going to be decades long,’’ Williams said. “People are worried and frankly they should be. The Moody’s negative watch listing is objective evidence that West Hartford's fiscal trajectory is unsustainable.”

Beth Kerrigan, a Democratic council member who is running for reelection, said the overriding emotion she hears from voters is anxiety. “No one is saying the town council has been fiscally irresponsible,’’ Kerrigan said. “They’re saying state leaders have to do their job” and pass a budget.

Last week, legislative leaders from both political parties agreed to a budget that seeks to close the state’s $3.5 billion deficit; a vote could be held next week. For municipal leaders, including those on the November ballot, it can’t come soon enough.


Subscribe and listen to the Capitol Watch Podcast

iTunes | Soundcloud | Google Play | TuneIn


Copyright © 2017, CT Now
49°