Tensions were high Wednesday night at a town hall meeting with Connecticut Senator Paul Doyle, who broke from his fellow Senate Democrats to support—and help pass—a Republican-backed budget.
This budget was ultimately passed through the Connecticut House of Representatives in the early hours of Sept. 16 and sent to Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy, who vowed to veto it. Senator Doyle, who represents the communities of Cromwell, Middletown, Newington, Rocky Hill, and Wethersfield in Connecticut’s Ninth District, joined two other Senate Democrats, Gayle Slossberg and Joan Hartley of the Fifteenth and Fourteenth Districts, in the 21-15 decision that doomed any prospect of convincing Republicans to switch and support a Democrat-backed budget.
The Town Hall, held at Oddfellows Playhouse in Middletown, offered community members a chance to question the Senator’s vote. Doyle began the event with an introduction and described Connecticut’s current fiscal woes: diminishing funds for discretionary spending, job loss, and shrinking revenues. He also used his speech to defend his controversial vote.
“Leading up to that vote, representatives of the Governor’s Office and representatives from my office said, ‘Doyle, you need to vote for a budget tomorrow…if there’s no budget, the entire state of Connecticut is on your neck,’” Doyle said. “I had to make a decision as to what was best for the state of Connecticut and the Ninth District…[The Democrat-backed budget] had a lot of pork in it…you get people to vote for things, you give them something…I can’t do that…We have no money; that’s not the responsible approach…Municipal aid was hit really hard…[The Republican-backed budget] was also flawed…the most important part of the budget to me was municipal aid…all five of my communities did well.”
Doyle emphasized what the Democrat-backed budget would have taken away from Connecticut’s most vulnerable residents. He used his conscience as the justification for his break with fellow Democrats.
“You might be aware of a program called Care for Kids,” he said. “It’s a program that helps disadvantaged and middle-class families afford daycare. The Democrat budget didn’t properly fund that…in year two, there would be zero dollars…the budget I voted for had $20 million in year two. Therefore, Care for Kids will be properly funded…It also put more money back in for the most helpless of our society…for those with intellectual and mental disabilities…The role of the government is to protect everyone, but [protecting the helpless] is the most important responsibility…My thought was: I’m going to vote for the lesser of the two evils…I had to vote my conscience.”
The Senator stressed that, given the likelihood that Governor Malloy would veto the Republican-backed budget, he knows that the General Assembly will have to collaborate on a bipartisan budget. He suggested that many of his constituents will take issue with almost anything the government passes, given that state aid will be cut no matter who drafts the budget.
The event then transitioned into a question-and-answer session.
“What is it that’s moral about the Republican budget when the top 17 and 10 percent are not paying their fair share, and the working poor are paying more, and when teachers are forced to hand over any percentage of their salaries to the state general fund?” an online questioner asked.
Doyle’s response echoed his earlier comments on how tax increases on wealthy residents do nothing to improve the state’s fiscal well-being.
“Well, everyone has their own judgment of morality,” the Senator responded. “The implication is that we should tax the rich. I already defined that that’s been proven not to work. The revenues aren’t generated…our revenues are not being generated by higher taxes…Our pension liabilities are horrific because the last 45 years Democratic and Republican governors have not properly funded our pensions. Governor Malloy…from day one…fully funded pensions…we’re [still] paying the bill today.”
Dave Roche, who was representing the Sheet Metal Workers Local 40 of
Connecticut at Wednesday’s event, slammed the governor for voting for a budget that would remove minimum wage requirements for two industries: the roofing industry and the elevator industry. Roche’s son works in the elevator industry.
“We’ve always supported you; you know that,” Roche said. “That ain’t gonna happen anymore…You said in an interview that you had to go with your gut. You just punched my members in the gut. You just hurt workers, and I’m ashamed that I told any of my members to vote for you. You call yourself an Irish Catholic politician, but an Irish Catholic politician would’ve never done what you did.”
Doyle reiterated his point that if he had not made a decision on the budget, he would have had to answer to the whole state. Roche responded.
“You know what [sic] told me,” Roche asked. “They said, ‘If you don’t make an agreement on minimum wage, you’re blowing up the budget.’ Well, I said, ‘Let’s blow it up!’ That’s what you should’ve said.”
Other questions addressed jobs, funding for families and children, and education funding. One woman praised Senator Doyle for protecting Connecticut families.
“I want to thank you because I know it took courage to force conversations that would not have happened,” the woman said.
A representative from University of Connecticut Health Center expressed concern about the cuts in education spending found in the Republican budget.
“How can you talk about education yet cut $300 million to the flagship university in this state…closing UConn Health, laying off 5,000 people, and cutting $90 million to other state universities,” he said.
Doyle denied any plans to close UConn Health but admitted conversations he and fellow politicians have had about making Connecticut’s universities more cost-effective. He also said that the Democrat-backed budget spared UConn from large cuts but hit funding for K-12 schools.
“No one decision can make everyone happy,” Doyle said.
Melinda Brainerd of Action Together Connecticut, the independent organization that sponsored the town hall, spoke about the event over email. She expressed what she hoped Connecticut residents would get out of the Q&A.
“I hope that people understand how important local and state politics are,” Brainerd wrote. “There is a tendency to focus on what is happening nationally, but where we can make a difference and see that difference is in our towns and in our state. I have heard from countless state legislators that they rarely hear from constituents. I hope people understand the importance of making their voices, concerns, and visions for Connecticut heard to those elected to represent them.”
She also highlighted a few topics she thought were particularly important. One of the topics that the Senator discussed was a measure in the Republican-backed budget that would increase teachers’ pension payments but contribute nothing to teachers’ retirements. The funds raised from this increase would go into a general fund, not the state pension fund.
“I have numerous friends who are teachers, and after doing some subbing in the schools and having children in school, you really see what teachers are asked to deal with on a daily basis,” Brainerd said. “I know teachers are furious about the teacher tax, especially when they already put so much of their own money into their job.”
The town hall was also attended by a number of protesters representing the Wesleyan Democrats. Simon Korn ’18, the president of Wesleyan Democrats, discussed the group’s motivations for attending the event.
“[We] came to show dissatisfaction with Senator Doyle’s actions, now and in the past,” he said. “He’s voted against equal protection for transgender people, against in-state tuition and financial aid for undocumented students, and against treatment rather than incarceration for drug addicts. The last straw was when he voted for the Republican budget that taxes the working-class relatively more, lets corporate money into state politics, cuts $300 million from UConn’s budget, and breaks Connecticut’s contracts with its unions.”
This demonstration followed a post on the group’s Facebook page that condemned the Senator’s vote.
“Last week, Senator Doyle voted to raise taxes on his low-income constituents, slash funding for higher education, violate Connecticut’s contracts with its employees, and hand influence over legislative elections, including his own, to wealthy donors,” the group stated. “The Wesleyan Democrats…condemn his vote, but given his voting record on LGBTQ rights, immigration, and criminal justice reform, we are not surprised by it. He has once again shown complete disregard for the well-being of his district and his state, and he must be held accountable for his actions.”
Korn was dissatisfied with the Senator’s response to residents’ questions.
“When asked about the budget, he alternated between saying that he ‘voted his conscience’ and that he did it to ‘blow up’ the budget proceedings as though that would force a compromise, two answers which seem to me to be mutually exclusive,” he said. “I honestly think that he has an ideology that’s just not in line with the way his district votes, and he’s struggling to defend it.”
William Halliday can be reached at email@example.com.