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Guns, taxes, leadership emerge as top issues in governor's race

By Johanna Somers

Publication: The Day

Published August 17. 2014 4:00AM
Tom Foley, left, and Dannel P. Malloy
Malloy, Foley looking to define their positions more clearly to voters

As the gubernatorial race intensifies, Connecticut voters will likely see Democrat incumbent Gov. Dannel P. Malloy try to make the political debate about gun control, equal opportunity and leadership during disasters while Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley of Greenwich will likely attempt to focus on taxation, economic development and education reform.

Experts say the 2014 race, unlike the 2010 race between Foley and Malloy, will be about Malloy's record and is already heating up as the candidates call on each other for more details.

"As I said in my speech the other night, we will be rolling very specific plans out in the near future," Malloy told The Day on Friday. "I am trying to give him (Foley) a chance. He's been actively running for this thing for so long I thought he might put something out first."

The fact that Malloy has completed much of his agenda will make it difficult for him to say what it will be going forward, said Scott L. McLean, a political science professor at Quinnipiac University.

"He can't get rid of the death penalty twice," McLean said. "And if he talks about school reform, he will only cause more controversy in Democratic ranks. So Malloy does have a specific record and won't be able to go on the offense."

The challenge for Foley is that, according to polls, many voters agree with Malloy's "progressive agenda" on such topics as medical marijuana and gun control, even if they give him low marks on job performance, McLean said.

Foley could say he would be better at managing the economy. "He might be right, but it's hard to generate excitement from the base to get votes to win, so he can't really touch those traditionally Republican hot-button issues without potentially alienating unaffiliated voters," McLean said.

Education reform

On Thursday, Foley and his running mate, Heather Bond Somers, hit the campaign trail together for the first time and focused on education reform, the economy and taxes. Foley said he supports "in-district school choice" programs in which parents choose which public school their child attends within a school system, and "money follows the child," in which the cost of educating a child is paid to whichever school the parents choose.

Malloy said he doesn't support an education plan that would take dollars away from certain school systems.

Malloy rolled out a package of education reforms in 2012 that included the Commissioner's Network program - which aims to improve chronically low-performing schools - and expansion of charter and magnet school offerings to give parents more choices, as a way of closing the state's achievement gap between minority students and their peers.

The reforms included a plan to implement Common Core education standards and to evaluate teachers' job performance based on students' standardized test scores.

Many teachers and parents have been dissatisfied with the rollout of those plans, saying the administrative paperwork takes teachers away from teaching and that they weren't included in the design of the program. In response, Malloy delayed the implementation of linking evaluations to test scores and created a task force to evaluate Common Core that includes teachers from the state's two major teachers unions.

Foley said he supports a statewide system to grade and assess schools' performance but not necessarily Common Core, which has been voluntarily adopted by 43 states, including Connecticut. Malloy, he said, "has inserted himself and the state government inappropriately into school districts where local control is doing a good job."

Spending, economy

In response to a Foley comment Thursday that Malloy hasn't talked about how he would get control over spending and therefore "he is going to have to increase taxes again," Malloy said: "We are done with raising taxes. In fact, not only that, I have cut taxes since 2011."

The General Assembly and Malloy passed and signed a sales and use tax exemption for clothing and footwear under $50 that starts on July 1, 2015, and a similar exemption for nonprescription drugs that begins April 1, 2015. A partial income tax exemption on teachers' pensions will start in January.

Foley has regularly criticized Malloy's First Five program, in which corporations get millions of dollars in exchange for job growth, calling it "corporate welfare." He prefers "urban economic zones" to encourage businesses to open in Connecticut's cities.

The state currently has an Enterprise Zone Program that provides property tax abatements and tax credits for businesses that move to a particular zone in Connecticut.

"His economic proposal is he wants to do what I am already doing," Malloy said. "So here is a guy who has been running for governor for five years and still doesn't know what we are doing in the state of Connecticut.

"We are managing the state's resources. We have seen the creation of 60,000 private sector jobs at a rate - multiples of both of my predecessors."

As the candidates try to get their message out about what they call Malloy's anti-business policies, they have had some hurdles to climb.

Somers' former company, Hydrofera LLC, received a $1 million equity investment in 2000 from the former Connecticut Development Authority, now called CT Innovations. When Hydrofera, which is in Willimantic, was sold to Hollister Inc., the state got $475,000 back, about half of its investment. Somers said in exchange for the $1 million investment, her company was required to create 100 jobs. The company created 40 jobs and paid an $80,000 penalty for not reaching its goal.

"If the basic thrust of the Republican campaign is that the state should not be investing in private businesses, should not be picking winners and losers, then there is a problem here, because clearly this is a candidate who did accept state funding for a business," said Ronald Schurin, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut, in a telephone interview.

Somers said at the press conference Thursday, "I think there is a big difference between precise investment in start-up companies that create jobs versus bribing a company to move from one town to the next."

Foley's recent visit to the neighborhood of Fusion Paperboard in Sprague, where he went to call attention to what he called Malloy's economic policy failures, took an unexpected direction when state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who is also the first selectwoman of the town, engaged him in a debate. Fusion Paperboard announced in July that it would close its Sprague mill and lay off 145 workers, one year after receiving a $2 million low-interest loan from the state.

At the Sprague press conference, Foley repeatedly said Malloy and Osten had failed to keep the jobs at the mill. On Wednesday, the day after the Republican primary, Malloy put out an ad depicting Foley telling workers they had failed to keep their own jobs.

Foley said he was not saying that the workers had failed.

Schurin said Foley had "legitimate" things to say in Sprague, but his message could have been misunderstood.

"I think if Foley were a more experienced candidate, he would have been very, very careful not to say anything that could have been misinterpreted," Schurin said.

Gun control

When it comes to gun control, Malloy's record is easy to find. He signed Senate Bill 1160, which banned the sale and possession of assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines. Foley has said if he had been governor, the gun control bill would have been different. He also said a full repeal of the law is unlikely but that if the legislature came to him with some changes that made the gun control law less inconvenient for law-abiding citizens, he would sign that.

McLean, the political scientist, suspects the gun control law will be brought up frequently on the campaign trail.

Minimum wage

Malloy signed into law minimum wage increases that are set to reach $10.10 by 2017 and has said he supports raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour nationally, as President Obama has called for. Foley initially said increasing the minimum wage nationally didn't sound "unreasonable" but said he was concerned about Connecticut raising its minimum wage before an increase in the national minimum wage.

Foley said Thursday that he supports a $10.10 minimum wage but that if he had been governor, the bill would have been different and provided a lower minimum wage to people under age 21 and in entry-level jobs.

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