Connecticut has some great ways to get out of making decisions. For example, the part in the constitution that allows a bill to become law if the governor just doesn’t bother to sign it after a certain length of time passes (the constitution was obviously written in part by legislators). In essence, the constitution allows the executive to take no responsibility whatsoever for a bill.
Gov. Rell has decided today to do just that. She will allow the recently-passed budget to become law without her signature, ending a months-long budget standoff with a mild whimper.
The governor was faced with a difficult choice, to be sure. The Democrats’ budget was not quite what she wanted, but it was close enough that the public would see little real difference. Signing it would enrage Republicans. Vetoing it would lead to annoyed Democrats and yet another round of exhausting negotiations coupled with the continuation of the unbelievably ham-handed PR campaign on the part of both parties.
And so, the governor took the only option that would allow her to avoid the pitfalls of signing or vetoing: doing nothing.
Allowing the budget to go into effect without her approval sends a few important messages. The first is that the governor still does not like the budget, but that her opinion doesn’t matter in the end.
The second message is that the governor’s tough talk about reshaping government, holding the line on taxes and playing tough with the Democrats were really just words. In the end, though there was an epic stalemate for a while, it was Jodi Rell who blinked.
Conservatives will argue that she should have held the line. If you remember, Gov. Lowell Weicker vetoed budget after budget before the legislature finally passed the income tax. Weicker realized an essential truth about the legislature: it is lazy, easily distracted and likes going home. Jodi Rell is an alumna of the legislature, however, and while she has often been able to outwit its molasses-slow leadership, she obviously wasn’t willing to wait around (or have the state wait around) to find out what would happen if she became the brick wall Weicker was.
Politically, this non-decision hurts the governor. She’s going to have a hard time explaining to other Republicans why she backed away from tough talk on taxes, especially when the GOP base has worked itself into a frothing frenzy on the issue nationally. She also seems like she’s not really in charge, like she’s abdicated responsibility for one of the most important things the legislature and governor do.
This raises all sorts of questions for next year. Can she run and win? Will Republicans support her? I suspect many voters will still like her (there’s precious little that’s concrete to attack), but a more decisive opponent may be able to find cracks in her armor.
And, the biggest question of all, is this the action of someone ready to leave public life? Or the canny action of a politician playing to the center in advance of an election fight?
The third message her actions today send, and it’s a bit more positive, is that Jodi Rell really is the adult in the room–sort of. The state needs a budget. The Republicans, both in the legislature and as a state party, are a small and ineffective minority who can’t help her. The budget had been moved to the right probably as far as it was going to go without another two months of grueling negotiations. Towns need state grants, agencies need funding. The Democratic leadership did little beyond bluster, and seemed to need the prodding of the governor to get anything done.
But adults make hard decisions. If the right thing to do here was to let an imperfect budget stand, then the governor should have signed it.
Instead, she pushed the easy button.