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Secret poll designed to help Rell in budget fight

Hartford - A secret opinion poll conducted last spring for Gov. M. Jodi Rell shows the Republican governor was carefully considering how a battle with Democrats over the state budget could damage, or perhaps enhance, her standing with the public, newly disclosed documents from the University of Connecticut show.

The poll results and accompanying correspondence, obtained by The Day from UConn through the Freedom of Information Act, shed new light on the governor's use of public-opinion data to position her administration in the fight with Democrats over the $8.5 billion budget deficit last spring.

The records also revive unresolved questions about Rell's dependence on Ken Dautrich, the UConn polling expert who has acknowledged helping to craft and analyze the governor's political poll while his university salary was being supported by a taxpayer-funded agreement with Rell's budget office to examine the state budget.

Conducted just days after Rell first loudly denounced Democrats' proposals to raise income taxes to close the deficit, the poll asked some standard political research questions, including some about Rell's job approval and electability ratings and the public approval of the Democrat-led General Assembly.

The poll also sought to determine which tax increases voters might not object to and whether a protracted standoff over state spending would lower the governor's 70 percent approval rating.

One question on the 19-question survey reads: "If Governor Rell compromises with Democrats and agrees to raise some taxes in exchange for spending cuts - would that make you more supportive of the Governor or less supportive?"

Another asked: "If Governor Rell stands firm in her proposal not to raise taxes even if it means a long budget battle with the Democrats - would that make you more supportive of the Governor or less supportive?" (Sixty-nine percent of respondents answered "more supportive," compared to just 25 percent who said it would lessen their support.)

The poll also asked respondents to consider whether they would oppose or support various proposals to increase state revenue to close the deficit, including raising the state sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent; eliminating all exemptions to the sales tax; raising income taxes on couples making more than $250,000 per year or on income greater than $500,000 or $1 million; raising cigarette or business taxes; and borrowing and "increasing the state's debt."

The poll was conducted from April 9 to 11, 2009. Just six days earlier, Democrats had released their own draft budget, which included many of the proposals Rell's advisers were testing with the poll, including income-tax hikes, borrowing and eliminating sales-tax exemptions.

On the day of its release, Rell denounced the budget with a veto threat, called the tax hikes "astonishing" and dismissed the borrowing as an effort to "just ring it up on the state's credit card."

"It's as if they have just given up," the governor said.

But at the time, Rell's advisers, including her chief of staff, M. Lisa Moody, and Dautrich, were in the midst of a secretive project to help gauge voters' resistance to or acceptance of some of the very proposals Rell was publicly denouncing.

'The smoking gun'

The idea of polling voters to determine their views of budget proposals had been batted around for months by Dautrich, Moody and others, and previous and newly released documents from UConn show that Dautrich briefly considered charging the entire expense of the poll to university academic accounts before the apparent decision was made to pay for the cost of the data collection out of Rell's political exploratory committee coffers.

The April poll and related documents, obtained by The Day under state open records laws, also were turned over in recent weeks to investigators for the State Elections Enforcement Commission, which is seeking to determine whether the polling work Dautrich and several graduate students provided to Rell constituted an improper or illegal campaign contribution, since neither the professor nor his aides were paid for their services by Rell's committee.

The initiant of that complaint, Jonathan Pelto, a former state legislator and Democratic political consultant, said Wednesday that the focus of the poll and the apparent work on it by Dautrich and several UConn graduate students validated both the campaign finance complaint - since Rell's political committee neither paid for nor disclosed Dautrich's assistance or that of the graduate students - and the criticisms that the administration had conducted political business using public resources.

"This is the smoking gun that people felt was there, and had the sense was there," Pelto said. "This is the piece that puts it all together, because this is the political poll that was conducted in some way or another using public resources and state employees. ... This is the smoking gun. This is the piece that reveals that a significant violation occurred."

The polling documents also have been turned over to the state Auditors of Public Accounts and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who are conducting a joint investigation of Dautrich's secret work on behalf of Rell and the administration since 2008.

Public funds
for political work?

Dautrich was awarded a contract by Rell's budget office, the Office of Policy and Management, to conduct a review of state government and spending, but he also provided extensive advice on politics and messaging, conducted focus groups to help shape Rell's budget message and has acknowledged helping to draft and analyze Rell's poll in April.

In an e-mail message released this week by UConn, Dautrich suggests charging the expense of the phone banks for Rell's April poll to the same account used in previous academic work, but the administration has since said that the payment to Braun Research Inc. of Princeton, N.J., was paid for by the governor's exploratory committee.

State officials are now weighing whether the effort supplied by Dautrich and the graduate students constitutes the use of public resources for political work on Rell's behalf.

Among the records turned over to elections officials and the auditors is a detailed breakdown of the hourly pay and benefits charged to Dautrich's "Connecticut Budget Review" account in the UConn accounting system, which is the account set up to hold payments provided by OPM.

"The investigation concerns whether state or public resources were appropriately used," Blumenthal said Wednesday, and otherwise declined to comment.

An internal probe of Dautrich by UConn's Office of Audit, Compliance and Ethics is also ongoing, though the professor remains in good standing and is teaching classes, according to a university spokesman.

"The university is still in the midst of its investigation, and this issue is one of several that are being examined as part of that," said UConn spokesman Mike Kirk, responding to a question about whether Dautrich's work constituted political activity.

Dautrich did not respond to a message left seeking comment, and one of his former graduate students who worked on the project, Stephanie Marken, also declined to comment.

Rich Harris, a spokesman for Rell, declined to provide a response on behalf of the governor Wednesday.

"While this matter is under review - a review the Governor welcomes - we are not going to comment," Harris said in an e-mail message.

Rell: 'It's what's right'

But the question of Rell's use of polling has long rankled the administration, and its concern with the governor's high approval ratings has been a point on which Rell herself has insisted she is misunderstood.

In an interview in late August, the governor seemed taken aback when asked if her continued insistence that the budget could be balanced without tax increases was more posture than conviction, and was an attempt to avoid conceding a point that could have been damaging to her public approval rating, as Democrats had long suggested.

"Oh, please," Rell said at the time. "It has nothing to do with popularity or poll numbers. It's what's right for Connecticut."

But poll numbers showed support for Rell's positions through the summer, like "standing firm" in refusing to strike a deal closer to Democrats' terms, and in the tack she took as fall approached: acceding to income tax hikes and eventually cutting a deal with the lawmakers to finalize a budget at last.

A majority of poll respondents (74 percent) said they believed the budget should be balanced either through spending cuts alone or primarily through reductions and modest tax hikes.

But respondents also tended to support some of the proposals to which Rell eventually acquiesced. Those included income tax increases on couples making more than $250,000 - a central part of the Democrats' platform that administration and legislative Republicans said Connecticut taxpayers would not accept.

The governor's poll actually found that 63 percent of respondents were either "strongly" or "somewhat" in support of raising marginal rates on people above that income bracket from 5 to 6 percent.

Support was even stronger for tax hikes from 5 to 7.95 percent on those with income of $1 million or more, with 56 percent strongly supportive and another 13 percent somewhat in favor.

Those marginal rate increases were the same ones offered in the Democratic committee budget Rell had criticized. The governor eventually agreed to a Democratic budget (though she refused to sign it into law) that included similarly structured income tax hikes.

Shining a light

House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, one of the administration's chief antagonists in the budget dispute, said the polling would shed light on what he considered Rell's resistance to strike a deal over the course of last year.

"In the public's mind, they wondered why agreements weren't reached," Donovan said. "And apparently this was the reason."

As for Dautrich's work on Rell's behalf, the speaker compared his efforts to the research work that lawmakers of both parties delegate to the publicly funded nonpartisan staff in the legislature.

"I think there's some question about the use of university time and dollars," Donovan said. "It was information that was gathered, but it was private, and it appears to be some of the questions were calculated to enhance the governor's position."

"I don't ask the Office of Legislative Research to ask how would I be perceived by my constituents in Meriden," he added. "I think that would be, well, unprofessional."


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