A fundamental rule when it comes to sailing is that it matters who is captaining the ship and whether the executive crew is prepared to perform their duties.

As Connecticut’s ship of state flounders in the rough seas of the worst recession since the Great Depression, the people of Connecticut, like the passengers of the Titanic, are learning that they are the real victims when leadership fails.

Ninety-Eight years ago on April 15, 1912, the “unsinkable” Titanic disappeared beneath the cold waters of the North Atlantic at 2:20 a.m. Two and a half hours earlier, with her captain tucked comfortably away off the bridge in his quarters, the great ship plowed into an iceberg. That night, the passengers learned the horrible truth about what happens when those in charge are incapable or unwilling to successfully perform their duties.

The catastrophic failures that led to the demise of the Titanic were many. The ship’s design was fatally flawed and Titanic’s staff knew little about how to deal with an accident, having conducted only one drill before the ship took on passengers.

But the moment of truth came when the ship’s leadership simply failed to perform their duties. Despite repeated warnings of icebergs and ice flows on their route, the captain and his senior leadership didn’t take the necessary steps to provide for the safety of the ship. As a U.S. Senate inquiry found, even after they were specifically warned of the danger, “No discussion took place among the officers; no conference was called to consider these warnings; no heed was given to them. The speed of the vessel was not relaxed, the lookout was not increased.”

Even after the ship’s side was ripped apart, “no general alarm was sounded, no whistle blown and no systematic warning was given to the endangered passengers.” It was nearly half an hour before Capt. Edward John Smith even ordered a distress message sent out.

Furthermore, while the ship’s lifeboats had a capacity for 1,178 (which wasn’t even enough for all the passengers and crew on board), only 706 persons were put on them as the Titanic sank, leaving 1,517 others to perish as the ship went down.

While it may seem a bit melodramatic to compare those dark events to the drama unfolding here in Connecticut, the reality is that our state is in deep trouble. As a direct result of failed leadership, the “ship of state” is plowing (or perhaps more aptly, has plowed) into the proverbial iceberg and in many ways it looks as though we are cutting loose our lifeboats and allowing them to drift away – empty. The pressing question is whether our elected officials can rise to the occasion.

The deficit mitigation package recently passed is a haphazard plan that may or may not balance the state budget but certainly does little to address the structural deficit that is poised to take Connecticut down. Since no additional revenue was created, the plan relies heavily on the use of one-time revenues, draining special funds, or making cuts that will lead to higher costs for others or reduced services for some of our state’s most vulnerable citizens.

High on the list of financial maneuvers was the shift of $23 million dollars from UConn’s Operating Reserve Account, which is primarily made up of student tuition and fees, to the State’s General Fund – a cut that will certainly lead to even higher tuition and fees for those seeking to acquire the knowledge and skills to succeed. Another $3 million was shifted from a similar fund at the Connecticut State University system as well.

Worse, next year’s budget remains dependent on an irresponsible proposal to “securitize” (or borrow) $1.3 billion by giving away $1.8 billion in state revenues over the next decade. If the proposal goes forward, the state will be undercutting the very revenue streams it will need in the years to come. If the proposal fails, next year will begin with a budget deficit of over $1 billion.

Regardless, in January 2011, Connecticut’s next governor and leadership team will inherit a budget with a revenue shortfall of significantly more than $3.5 billion. It is for that reason that the election of 2010 is so critical. The over-arching question is whether the state’s new crew will do better than the present, and whether our ship of state will be saved or allowed to sink under the waves.

Our executive branch of government plays a particularly powerful role. The governor and the executive branch are responsible for proposing a balanced budget and then managing the affairs of the state. While it is true that adopting laws and budgets requires the cooperation of both the executive and legislative branches, in the end it is the governor and his or her team that must run the $20 billion-a-year operation otherwise known as our state government.

As gubernatorial candidates travel the state, voters deserve to know more about what our next captain will actually do, and how he or she will lead.

Candidates must offer real proposals rather than empty rhetoric. Statements like, “we’ll cut a $1 billion my first day in office” are beyond absurd. The fact is that the vast majority of the budget cannot be easily modified, if it can be cut at all. Areas where cuts can be made include municipal aid, higher education funding, and a portion of human services, as well as the state’s social and cultural programs. It is hard to imagine that serious candidates can identify cuts that would amount to even $100 – $200 million dollars.

The stark reality is that even if the next governor could hack $500 million dollars from the budget, we still will be left with a shortfall of well over $3 billion dollars and no ability to borrow in order to fill that gap. Like it or not, the next administration, whether Democrat or Republican, will need to follow their budget cuts with revenue increases.

None of the choices will be easy to accept. Dramatically increasing the income tax on the wealthy, such as an increase of 2 percent on those making more than $250,000, will produce a little over $1 billion dollars. A 1 percent increase on the sales tax might produce another $500 million. Taken together, that will get the state less than half way through the deficit, and that would be after making draconian cuts. Other revenue proposals, such as highway tolls, closing corporate loopholes, or adopting a statewide tax on property with an offset for those making less than $100,000, also need to be considered.

The harsh reality is that Connecticut’s ship of state is rapidly taking on water and it will be up to the next governor and a new executive crew to develop and implement a plan of action. To that end, the most important question for candidates is not whether they support or oppose a particular budget cut or tax increase, but whether they can recruit a capable leadership team and lead when they are sworn into office in January.

The next governor will appoint more than 40 commissioners and executive directors along with more than 100 other top agency personnel. These people, in turn, select and appoint hundreds of other directors and managers, all of whom will manage, coordinate, reorganize, and redirect the state’s agencies and about 45,000 employees.

As the passengers of the Titanic learned almost to the day 98 years ago, it matters who is captaining the ship and it matters who is making the decisions on the bridge and throughout the entire management system.

In the coming months it is essential that we hear from candidates about their particular plans and proposals, as well as how they will go about putting together the crew that will take over Connecticut’s ship of state.

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.