Connecticut Democrat Dan Malloy is America's most unpopular governor. Democrats should take advantage of that while they still can.
With the array of progressive legislation unveiled by Democrats in Connecticut’s General Assembly this week, it would be easy to forget that the constitutionally stated purpose of this year’s legislative session is adjusting the state’s out-of-balance budget — which is currently over $240 million in the red.
Ultimately, legislators could choose to ignore that objective and opt instead to focus their time on bills designed to rally their base in an election year.
That would be a mistake.
Left untouched, the deficit will grow. The state’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis currently projects a ballooning deficit of $4.6 billion for the 2019-2021 biennial budget. Resolving that unpleasant mess would fall to the state’s next governor, putting them in the position of implementing a difficult combination of unpopular spending cuts and revenue increases that would almost certainly leave them politically wounded heading into the 2022 gubernatorial election.
When Dan Malloy became governor in 2011, he faced a deficit of more than $6 billion for his first two-year budget. Unpopular tax increases, layoffs, service cuts, and municipal aid cuts have been a constant drag on his public perception, even among members of his own party.
That’s why the time to tackle the state’s budgetary problems is now, when voters already have someone to blame who won’t be on the ballot this fall.
Malloy, whose approval rating now sits in the low 20s, is not seeking reelection, giving Democrats the opportunity for a clean slate come next January. Malloy knows he is unpopular, and he knows firsthand how politically draining it can be to enter office with a massive deficit.
Democrats in the legislature might not realize it, but the governor’s deficit mitigation proposal is a gift.
Measures like increasing the sales tax, further slashing municipal aid, and establishing electronic tolls will almost certainly prove to be unpopular. Malloy knows this too.
“I understand that these options will be almost universally objectionable,” he wrote when he issued the proposal. “In fact, I agree that these changes are difficult and that in better economic times, with a balanced budget, none of us would put them on the table for consideration.”
As it stands, Republicans and Democrats are tied for control of the state Senate and any proposal will require bipartisan support — meaning both parties will share the blame for the difficult choices that must be made.
However, at the end of the day, it will be Gov. Dan Malloy who must put pen to paper and sign them into law with his name on it.
Democrats should do their best to let him.
The temptation to work on progressive legislation, like bills that would make community college tuition-free or make the state part of the National Popular Vote Compact, is strong. However, it would be a waste of an opportunity to forgo the chance to repair the state’s finances before a new governor takes office and a new General Assembly convenes next January.
If legislators can fix the budget and Democrats can ride dissatisfaction with the Republicans and the Trump administration to victory in state elections this November, Malloy — in spite of his unpopularity — will have left them well-positioned to implement a truly progressive vision for Connecticut in 2019 and beyond.