By Greg Bordonaro
Mark Bertolini, CEO, Aetna
As inauguration day approaches, Gov.-Elect Dan Malloy is making a conscious — and public — effort to reach out to the business community. He’s making sure he gets face time, or at least a phone call, with top executives from some of the state’s largest employers.
And the one clear message emerging is the message that the state’s business climate needs to change.
Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, who last week spoke to Malloy by phone, was one who was eager to make his voice heard.
In an interview with the Hartford Business Journal, Bertolini said he likes Malloy and has high hopes for his administration. But he also described Connecticut’s business climate as “not a very good one.” And if that doesn’t change, it could impact the Hartford health insurer’s future workforce decisions.
“We are committed here as long as it’s a fair and competitive business climate, and we are prepared to act if it does not become a fair and competitive business climate,” Bertolini told HBJ.
Bertolini noted that at one point Aetna had over 3,000 employees in New Jersey, but the business climate there deteriorated so badly over time that the company has reduced its workforce in the Garden State to about 350 people.
Aetna has 7,200 employees in Connecticut, though the company has reduced its workforce here, and in other states, several times over the past year, including a recent announcement of about 50 layoffs.
Bertolini also raised concerns about health care reform efforts on the state level, saying any attempt to create a state-backed health insurance plan — something being endorsed by members of the Sustinet Board — would not be “supportive of the state’s private insurance industry.”
Malloy’s recent agenda has included meetings with the top brass of Travelers Cos., The Hartford Financial Services Group, United Technologies, and Electric Boat.
He’s also made time for stops at Lego in Enfield and a board of directors meeting at WorkPlace, Inc.
And he’s also listening to the needs of small businesses as well.
Administration officials say it’s an opportunity to create an open dialogue with businesses before Malloy officially takes office Jan. 5.
“Gov.-Elect Malloy has said his top priorities upon taking office are creating new jobs, keeping the ones we have and getting our state’s fiscal house in order,” Malloy spokeswoman Colleen Flanagan said. “These meetings are important to allow Gov.-Elect Malloy and the leadership at these companies the chance to discuss ways in which these companies can continue to be a large and important portion of the state’s employment force.”
Malloy and the business community likely won’t see eye-to-eye on every issue. Malloy, for example, supports some form of a paid sick leave, something at least part of the business community has rallied fervently against in recent years.
But if the state is going to solve its budget crisis and ultimately lose its business unfriendly stigma Malloy and the private sector will need to find common ground.
Malloy, who will become the state’s first Democrat governor since former Gov. William O’Neill left the office in 1991, has been frank about his vision for the Connecticut’s future.
Describing himself as a supporter of Keynesian economics at last week’s MetroHartford Alliance Rising Star Breakfast, he promised “systemic” and “sustainable” changes to state government. And his efforts to close the state’s $3.4 billion budget deficit will include a combination of budget cuts and tax increases.
But he said he also wants to change the perception that Connecticut is anti business. And he’s expressed ideas likely to gain overwhelming support from the private sector.
He reiterated, for example, his commitment to move Connecticut’s bookkeeping to generally accepted accounting principles so the state is more transparent in where it stands financially.
He also said the state needs to benchmark all taxes and regulations that impact business, so Connecticut can see where it stands compared to other states.
Cutting electricity costs, creating an independent authority to run Bradley Airport, and investing in early childhood education are other goals Malloy set out for his administration.
It’s too early to tell how the relationship between Malloy and the business community will ultimately play out.
At the MetroHartford Alliance breakfast Webster Bank Executive Vice President of commercial banking Joseph Savage said to Malloy that he can’t be “pro jobs and anti-business.”
But it is clear that Malloy is trying to set an early positive tone.
“From this day forward Connecticut is open for business again,” Malloy said.
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