When things go bad, people look around trying to find someone to blame for the trouble their family, their town, their state, and their country is in. Right now a first-class blame-fest has been under way at the national level for something like a decade.
Who’s responsible for government being completely dysfunctional? Who’s at fault for the yawning pit that is the deficit, and the financial crash that’s landed us in the worst economic hardship in memory? Who do we blame for endless wars, the decline of the middle class, the retreat of American influence and power worldwide, and the general sense of hopeless anger people in this country seem to be feeling these days? There’s plenty to go around for everyone, though the wrath of a disgruntled public usually falls on the incumbent president’s party—hence the “wave” elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010.
Here in Connecticut, though, it has functioned a little differently. Voters channel most of their anger and frustration upward toward the federal level, while the legislature and governor put off or found temporary ways around the toughest budget decisions in the hope that the economy would improve. Gov. M. Jodi Rell has remained consistently popular, and majority Democrats have had little trouble getting re-elected to the state legislature.
All that seems likely to change next year when Dan Malloy takes office and the monster bill that’s been put off and off comes due at last. Malloy has been trying to prepare legislative Democrats and, to a certain extent, the public for some of the measures he’s likely to propose in 2011 to get the state back on a solid financial footing. “We can’t raise taxes by $3.5 billion, nor can we cut the budget by $3.5 billion. Let’s be honest,” Malloy told legislative Democrats on Monday. So, as has seemed inevitable for a long time, the budget fix Malloy proposes will eventually be a mix of tax increases and service/salary cuts—none of which will be particularly palatable.
But is the public ready for such a budget? Connecticut voters have so long been focused on national issues that pain closer to home might come as a nasty surprise. To make matters more complicated, Republicans, now shut completely out of the budget process, are likely to take a page from the national GOP playbook and focus unreserved anger on Malloy and Democrats in general. Simplistic solutions will be proposed by people who should know better; it’s easy being in opposition when hard choices need to be made. The end result is that Malloy will almost certainly find himself in the unenviable position of being the focus of popular rage, much like Gov. Lowell Weicker was in 1991 at the height of the income tax protests.
Will that rage be justified? After all, we’ve allowed the governor and legislature to slide by without really addressing the fallout from the financial crash and the fact that Connecticut has been living beyond its means. Malloy and others have been warning us that we’re in for a world of hurt next February when he presents his first budget to the legislature, and the public claims to love austerity and sensible budgeting. If we’re not ready when it actually arrives, the only people we should blame is ourselves.
Given how Americans have been reacting to our various national crises, though, this is the last thing that will happen. Malloy should prepare himself for a very tough first year.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner/author of CTLocalPolitics.com. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.