|By Mary E. O'Leary, New Haven Register, Conn.|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
July 07--HARTFORD -- In the fight for the hearts of Republicans as the party goes through yet another primary in choosing a gubernatorial candidate, John McKinney has legislative experience and knows his way around the Capitol.
A state senator from Fairfield since 1998, he has been the state Senate minority leader for the past seven years and has a reputation for being able to work on a bipartisan basis with the Democratic majority in Hartford.
While a known quantity in those circles, McKinney is a good example of how being influential in one world does not necessarily translate to name recognition across the state.
McKinney, 50, is in a low-key battle with Tom Foley for the Republican endorsement in the Aug. 12 primary as the contenders fight general voter apathy and residents are more focused on vacation than who should lead the state for the next four years.
Foley, who ran for governor in 2010, has the name recognition -- thanks in part to the $11 million he spent on a tough primary that divided the party and a general election that he lost to Democrat Dannel P. Malloy by only 6,404 votes out of 1,145,781 cast.
A Quinnipiac Poll two months ago showed Foley and Gov. Malloy neck and neck, although in a match-up between Malloy and McKinney, the governor would get 44 percent to 40 percent for McKinney.
When people were asked, however, if they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of McKinney, three-quarters of them didn't know enough about the minority leader to say one way or the other.
McKinney is not worried. He expects to get his $1.35 million Citizen Election Program grant this week and be up and running with the next portion of the campaign immediately, although Foley is one step ahead and has already started to book television ads.
The Senate minority leader is partnering for purposes of the grant with lieutenant governor candidate David Walker, something Foley didn't have to do to raise the necessary $250,000 to qualify.
There is agreement between McKinney and Foley on a number of issues but not in how they would approach the state's finances as they appeal to Republicans to go to the polls and choose between them.
McKinney said he has an edge over Foley in crafting a new state budget document since he has done it before.
"I don't think you can come in and learn that overnight, and given the deficit challenges the next governor faces, you have to be ready to do that. I have worked with the Democrats in the legislature and gotten things done," McKinney said. The Office of Fiscal Analysis is projecting a $2.8 billion deficit in the next biennium.
The Republican minority leadership offers a budget plan each cycle, but its leaders are not actually at the table with Malloy and the Democratic leadership.
The state senator continues to promote the GOP no-tax-increase alternative budgetoffered in 2011 as a relevant model today. It was the GOP legislators' answer to Malloy's $1.5 billion tax increase the legislature put into effect, along with contract changes and other cuts, when he was faced with the one-year, $3.6 billion deficit that he inherited from the previous administration.
Devon Puglia, spokesman for the Democratic Party, said using the 2011 proposal would "turn the clock back on the state."
"This was a proposed budget that relied on $500 million in unidentified savings, hinged on a one-time $200 million debt refinancing maneuver, cut school funds disproportionately on low-income districts, reduced pre-k slots, and slashed Medicaid eligibility. It strains credulity to believe this is his model for Connecticut -- because it's just that reckless," Puglia said.
McKinney, like Foley, would start with flat-funding discretionary spending, but he said you have to find between $800 million and $900 million savings beyond that to offset the increased costs of mandated state and federal obligations. Those include $162 million in salary increases, $94 million more for fringe benefits, $53 million more in pension costs and $371 million in increased debt service.
Both Foley and McKinney agree that flat-funding discretionary spending would eliminate the projected $1.4 billion deficit for fiscal 2015-16, but McKinney would go further.
"Simply spending exactly what we spent last year may get us out of the deficit, but it gives us no room to lower taxes," he said.
Foley would go after inefficiencies in the budget and he puts a lot of weight on negotiating reductions in charges by hospitals and providers as a way to achieve substantial savings. But he sees no need to try to reopen state worker agreements on healthcare and pensions that are in effect until 2022.
McKinney says that is too big a factor "to push off the table."
"We have unfunded pension and healthcare liabilities that the people of Connecticut cannot afford to pay. Politicians have made promises after promises with other people's money that isn't there," he said.
McKinney would look to get higher contributions to healthcare costs from state workers and he wants to end the ability of some employees to increase their pensions by working large amounts of overtime in their final years on the job. He is also opposed to professors who retire and collect a pension but return to state service on a per-diem basis.
"Those practices are fiscally irresponsible and we need to change them," he said.
McKinney said he would do all this through collective bargaining, but it was unclear how he would get workers to the table on a deal that is set for the next seven years.
He said the state employee health plan, of which he is a beneficiary, is "at least" double the cost of "a better than average" private insurance plan.
"I like to say state workers deserve an honest day's pay for an honest day's work. They deserve healthcare coverage and something for retirement ...Why not give state employees a healthcare plan that is better than the average in the private sector?" he asked.
McKinney would transition to private nonprofits to provide social services, giving as an example programs for the developmentally disabled that are now staffed by state workers. He said this would take several years to accomplish but could mean hundreds of millions a year in savings.
A 2011 Program Review Report out of the legislature found that on average it is about twice as costly to place intellectually disabled clients in public settings, while it found, on average, no better quality at the state facilities.
Labor advocates point to a June study by In The Public Interest that details workers losing wages and benefits when switched to a private employer in what they view as a "race to the bottom." They say this just increases income inequality and doesn't contribute to stable neighborhoods.
Larry Dorman of Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has said "it was unfortunate that Sen. McKinney clearly wants to scapegoat public employees and treat them as the enemy."
He said state employees have been cut back and state social workers, as well as Department of Corrections employees, are understaffed.
"Perhaps the senator should visit work sites to see what they do, rather than whipping up a public frenzy against state workers," Dorman said.
McKinney again said the services at the state-owned Riverview Hospital for Children and Youth that treats severe psychiatric problems should be provided through a partnership with private hospitals.
The candidate said he would begin cutting the size of state government by taking advantage of the normal attrition rate, which sees between 900 to 1,000 workers retire yearly. He would look to a hard freeze on replacing vacancies. Again referring to the 2011 proposal , he would reduce managerial staff and increase the ratio of managers to workers.
"There are ways to do it without layoffs, but at the end of the day your obligation is to the over 3 million people in the state of Connecticut and if you can care for that person who needs help in a system that saves the taxpayer money, I think you have an obligation to do that," McKinney said.
The Senate minority leader wants an office of inspector general as an independent body to get at fraud and abuse in state government. He said he has heard from state employees who are afraid to be whistleblowers because they have to go to the attorney general's office, which also represents state departments.
"It never made sense to me," McKinney said.
The state senator continues to make the case for an ethics commission at the legislature, but said besides himself, only Democratic state Sen Ed Meyer of Guilford was onboard.
Mckinney was elevated to the minority leader position after one of the multiple political scandals that have played out in Connecticut.
Republican state Sen. Louis C. DeLuca of Woodbury, who had been the minority leader for five years, resigned that positon in June 2007 after admitting that he had asked an individual accused of having ties to organized crime to threaten his granddaughter's husband. DeLuca said he believed she was being beaten.
After he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of threatening, a committee of the state Senate held hearings, but the inquiry was cut short when DeLuca resigned in November of that year.
"I have proposed an Ethics Commission almost every year after that," McKinney said.
State Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the bipartisan inquiry committee arrangement was a better way to go as he felt it avoided any prejudices members of a standing committee might have when looking into charges against a colleague.
On other fiscal matters, don't look for increases in the state's payments in lieu of taxes under a McKinney administration.
The long-term legislator said he is willing to consider new proposals for PILOT, but he said you should not make a promise to municipalities that you are never going to give them less money.
Looney has proposed a new system where there would be tiered payments depending upon on how restricted a city's grand list is because of the tax exemption granted to colleges and hospitals. But they would get a specific percentage of the loss of taxes yearly so municipalities could count on it instead of watching it continue to drop.
The state promised to pay up to 77 percent of the tax value of these properties that are exempt and 45 percent for state-owned property, but it continues to be less than that as the pot shrinks each budget cycle and the need expands to more towns.
Malloy boosted it for fiscal 2015, but a March report showed it was closer to 30 percent for colleges and hospitals and 20 percent for state property in New Haven with more than half the grand list nontaxable.
"I think the system works pretty well. We just need to make sure that the level of funding is adequate. I don't know if the current level of funding is unfair," McKinney said.
He said missing from the discussion is the benefit that Yale brings to New Haven. He said the voluntary payment from Yale, as well as its other contributions to the city and the cooperative arrangement (started between former Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and former Yale President Richard C. Levin) form a good model.
McKinney said the assumption that if Yale properties didn't exist that the land "would be filled with housing and manufacturing businesses and other businesses is a fantasy."
"Why is the private business going to move (to New Haven) if Yale is not there?" McKinney said. "That's what's missing" (in the argument), he said.
On education, McKinney agrees with Foley that the state should do away with the Common Core standards and its testing mechanism and replace it with Connecticut's own standards and evaluative measures.
He said Malloy's education reforms didn't provide the flexibility promised high-performing schools and he said the focus should be kept on the lowest performing districts. McKinney supported Malloy's expansion of pre-school slots for families who need help affording them.
The candidate supports public charter schools but not at the expense of the traditional public school system. "Over 90 percent of our kids will learn in a public school, and we can't lose focus on that," he said.
"I think you need to look at their admission policies and their retention policies so they are having open admissions, so the percentage of ESL (English as a second language) students is the same as you might find in a traditional public school," McKinney said of public charters.
Connecticut Voices for Children found that statewide most school choice programs underserve bilingual students and special-needs students and fail to provide desegregated learning environments.
McKinney has called for the resignation of Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor over the Common Core Standards and teacher evaluations.
He was also critical of the state Department of Education for either not vetting or poorly vetting the operators of FUSE, Family Urban Schools of Excellence, which runs Jumoke Academy charter schools in Hartford. It also had contracts to run turnaround schools in Hartford and Bridgeport and had been hired to run a new charter school, the Booker T. Washington Acadmeny in New Haven this fall.
It just lost the contract for the New Haven school, which is now scrambling to present a new plan to the state this week.
The Hartford Courant reported that Michael Sharpe, the CEO of FUSE, served time in prison and he also did not earn a doctorate as he claimed.
"That's a failure of our Department of Education, of the commissioner, and ultimately the governor has to accept responsibility for that," McKinney said.
On reform of the Educational Cost Sharing formula, he said it would need to be coupled with mandate reform "if we are going to have a brutally honest discussion about state spending and municipal aid." He said mandate changes, politically, have been extremely difficult to accomplish.
McKinney said the Republicans didn't cut town aid in their proposed budgets.
Malloy kept his promise not to balance the $3.6 billion deficit on the towns, in contrast to cuts made by New York and New Jersey. The governor also spent an additional $1.4 billion over four years to cover the federal stimulus aid to towns that had dried up, according to CtMirror.
McKinney was asked if the state should be able to step in if there are concerns about how a school board is spending its funds.
He said he supports local control over the schools, but given the amount of funds that go to some school systems, "we should have the ability to make sure that money is being used as intended. There needs to be some oversight." But where you draw that line, "I don't have that answer," McKinney said.
On the Connecticut Coalition for Justice on Education Funding lawsuit, McKinney said the state was right to contest it.
"I don't think there is any evidence that simply spending more money gives you a better education. It's much more complicated than that," he said.
McKinney, like Foley, has promised not to use the Special Transportation Fund for other uses, such as Malloy has done.
Long-term he would prioritize fixing the state's rail line with buy-in from New York, Massachusetts and the federal government, particularly for the four bridges that are more than 100 years old.
The candidate said he is not in favor of legalizing marijuana, which he said is a gateway drug to other substances. He did not vote to approve the use of medical marijuana in the state.
"I could not and cannot get past that it is illegal to possess it (marijuana) under federal law," McKinney said.
He supports the use of enterprise zones with special tax incentives, such as New York is doing, to attract businesses, but not giving tax credits to businesses moving from one town to another.
He did favor the use of unused tax credits by United Technology and said this option should be opened up to all businesses to create more jobs.
McKinney voted for Malloy's deal with UTC because it has 1,500 small businesses with contracts over $100,000 that would have taken a big hit if UTC decreased its footprint or left the state.
"It would be much better to have rules that work for all," he said, such as the tax credits available to all film and digital companies.
McKinney would eliminate the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income wage earners, which costs $120 million a year, at least for now, given the projected deficit.
He said he believes it is more fruitful than a minimum wage boost for the poor, but said a 30 percent EITC is too high and it should be 5 percent or 10 percent when the economy improves. McKinney would also decouple it from the federal income tax credit to eliminate fraud.
"So far, all we've seen is pandering from Mr. McKinney," said Puglia. "Every time there's a new audience, there's a new policy proposal. So today, he recklessly wants to eliminate the Earned Income Tax Credit for working families, lay off droves of workers, gut education and slash money for cities and towns. All these reckless and dangerous proposals would U-turn the progress Connecticut has made under the leadership of the Malloy-Wyman administration."
On the major gun reforms he voted for last year, McKinney said: "I stand by my vote. I stand by the law. I wouldn't have changed it."
He again explained his remarks to the Quiet Corner Tea Party Patriots in April when he was asked theoretically if he would sign a repeal of the law if Republicans took over the General Assembly and sent it to him for his signature.
"If the legislature repeals something, I think the governor owes a great deference to what the legislature does, and I would," McKinney replied at the time.
McKinney, in a recent interview, said the political reality is that both branches of government need to work with each other to get their priorities through.
"If there is an overwhelming majority, especially from my party, who want to do something that is a priority to them, part of the balance of government is understanding that if I'm going to get my priorities through the legislature (on the budget), given that they are a co-equal branch, they are going to want me to work with them on their priorities. That's what I meant by it," McKinney said.
The candidate said it would never get to that point. "If the legislature was going to do something I compleletly disagreed with, I would be working with them to avoid that from happening."
On a related issue, McKinney said he favors some period of amnesty for gun owners who failed to register large capacity magazines and banned weapons at the first of the year.
"We have tax amnesty. We have corporate filing amnesty," he said.
McKinney said he would make it clear that state officials weren't going to gun stores and cross-referencing weapon purchases and registrations. "I think you have to state right up front that is not going to happen," he said.
McKinney said an amnesty on gun registration "would help diffuse the situation and people won't fear that it will lead to confiscation."
State registration for Republicans is 436,550, while the Democrats have 798,478 and 917,535 are unaffiliated voters as of Oct. 29, 2013. Asked how McKinney would get the cities to vote for him in the general election given the big margins New Haven delivered for Malloy in 2010, he said, "I think it is a combination of the message and the messenger. People have to think you have a level of caring about them, understand their circumstances, that you are listening to them and that you emphatize with them. I think I have that," he said.
McKinney, who has three children and is the son of the late U.S. Rep. Stewart McKinney, earned his bachelor's degree at Yale and his law degree at the University of Connecticut School of Law.
(c)2014 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)
Visit the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.) at www.nhregister.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services