The 2010 session of the Connecticut General Assembly will begin in a matter of days.
After borrowing $1 billion to cover last year’s budget shortfall, Connecticut’s budget deficit has ballooned to more than $500 million and growing for this fiscal year and the projections for next year are even worse. If this situation remains unchanged, the next governor will be sworn into office facing a $3 to $4 billion structural budget hole and the greatest fiscal crisis in our state’s history.
While we can hope that the governor and legislature will set aside their political and partisan differences and begin to implement policies to strengthen our economy and pull Connecticut back from this ongoing financial disaster, the sad fact is that the significant changes we need are unlikely to occur until our state has elected a new governor who has the courage, vision, and ability to provide the necessary leadership to put Connecticut back on track.
Regardless of whether the next governor is a Republican or a Democrat, he or she is going to inherit a state budget in chaos and an Executive Branch that has lost its way.
As the list of candidates seeking the governor’s office increases or decreases depending on the day, the challenges that the next governor will have to confront grow exponentially.
As the political parties grapple with who to select as their nominees, the key is to focus on the task of identifying the candidates with the skills needed to succeed.
Despite the comfort that comes from political rhetoric, what is needed is an honest and truthful assessment of what the next governor must do.
Connecticut’s next chief executive will end up proposing and implementing the deepest cuts and largest revenue increases in our state’s history. Political insiders will want to refrain from discussing this truth for fear that any candidate who speaks openly about this reality will end up like Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign in 1984, when he ran on a platform that included a plan to increase taxes.
When it comes to analyzing voters in 2010, a better comparison would be what occurred in Massachusetts during the recent special election for U.S. Senate, where anger and fear drove people to vote for someone who doesn’t remotely represent their interests, but by doing so they could send a strong and powerful message that “politics as usual” will not be tolerated.
Connecticut’s voters are the most sophisticated in the country. Rather than being afraid to speak the truth, candidates should fear the repercussions of failing to be honest about the steps that will be needed to put things right in our state.
Restructuring the way our government does business and making deep cuts in spending will not be easy. The necessary tool is not a meat cleaver but a properly used scalpel. In order to succeed, the plan must alter the very essence of the way our government functions. Becoming more efficient and effective will require reducing the “size” of our government and focusing scarce resources on providing the most important services in the most cost efficient manner.
Shifting more service delivery to Connecticut’s community-based nonprofit providers and using existing state employees to make sure those services are being correctly administered is a way to expand the quality and availability of services at a lower public cost.
We also must restructure Connecticut’s funding formulas to make sure public dollars are used to fund the most critical services and supplement programs for those most in need. We can no longer use our funding formulas and public resources to supplant the efforts and activities of those who can afford to pay their own costs. Every agency, department, and program must be forced to identify how it can do a better job while re-focusing its resources on its most vital and necessary activities. No public project should move forward without explaining its self-worth in these troubled times and re-acquiring approval before it can proceed.
Topping the list of necessary steps is working with our state employees and their unions to come up with fair and honest solutions to reduce costs by eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy, shifting appropriate decision-making to the front lines, and seeking fair and achievable ways to reduce the costs of employee salaries and benefits. These types of difficult discussions cannot succeed while senior management continues to take care of itself first. Those who serve in government are providing a public service and while management should be fairly compensated, there is no place for some of the high salaries that administrators have come to expect in our state.
Honesty means we must also recognize that Connecticut’s fiscal situation cannot be resolved by cuts alone. The question is not if more revenue is needed, but whether we will be guided by fairness and common sense as we deal with Connecticut’s tax system. Income tax increases must be broad and more graduated so that those with higher household incomes pay their fair share. An earned income tax credit must also be added to provide greater incentives for people to find work.
Connecticut loses hundreds of millions of dollars when major corporations use exemptions, deductions, and loopholes to escape their true tax burden while major property owners in Connecticut pay no taxes at all to the state. The two most important steps is to repeal all but the most effective sales and corporate tax deductions and exemptions while adopting a small statewide property tax, balanced by a major expansion of the property tax credit for homeowners who pay Connecticut state income taxes.
These changes would bring in the resources necessary to preserve vital services, make our tax system fairer and do it in such as way as to limit the burden on Connecticut middle income families.
Cutting the budget and increasing revenue is never easy. Adopting the largest budget cuts and greatest revenue increases in history is virtually impossible to imagine. However, that is exactly the burden waiting for Connecticut’s next governor. Coming to grips with the task ahead is a step we must take before we can properly determine who is best qualified for the herculean task of leading us back from the precipice and putting our state back on track.
Jonathan Pelto served as a member of the House of Representatives from 1984-1993. He was Deputy Majority Leader and member of the Appropriations Committees during the income tax debate of 1991. He presently works as a strategic communications consultant.