Let’s start close to home.
Enfield’s schools are the most expensive thing in the town budget; this is true all across Connecticut. Education is pricey. The district is constantly under pressure to save money, because municipalities are always at war with their residents over property taxes, and there is no way to pass the buck on to someone else. State aid is variable, town services are visible, and often a relatively small handful of tax-focused voters control who sits on councils which pass budgets. It’s not an easy situation.
It’s tempting, then, to make decisions that are more about cheap than good. For instance, Enfield is consolidating its high schools, based partly on a need to streamline the school system in the face of declining enrollment, and partly on the desire to get rid of one expensive building, combine resources, and save money.
Never mind the folly of this. I should point out that in my hometown, Newington, two elementary schools (Elm Hill and New Meadow) were sold off in the 1970s and 80s because enrollment had cratered. One is now a senior center, the other a Christian private school. However, a huge enrollment spike in the 1990s forced the town to build additions to the remaining schools and combine classes. In one middle school class, my desk was technically in the hallway. Such is the wisdom of short-term planning.
More recently, the Enfield Board of Education has tentatively endorsed using Enfield High School as the single school location, despite the wishes of both current principals to use Fermi High School, which is larger and has more room to expand, instead. Why did the board decide the way it did? It’s cheaper, of course. Fermi was built on a tobacco field and would need significant cleanup before expansion could take place. Once again, cost-cutting zeal and easy, short-term thinking triumphs. The pain we may feel years from now isn’t relevant.
This is what’s worrying me about what’s happening on the state and federal level. Right now, to propose anything but cuts and budget trickery as a way of closing deficit gaps is to row against a strong cultural and political current, as Governor Dannel P. Malloy is finding out.
We’ve managed to create a political atmosphere in which raising taxes on people who can afford it is anathema, but firing teachers, cutting state worker salaries and slashing health care and social services is perfectly acceptable.
Look at the plaudits for our neighbor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY), who is riding high in the polls after striking a budget deal that drastically cuts state aid to schools and lays off workers… while giving millionaires a tax break. Only in the warped politics of 2011 does this make any kind of sense, but because Cuomo brought his budget in on time and with no tax increases, voters approve. Never mind that the costs will simply be passed down to cities, towns, agencies and nonprofits.
In our own state, Gov. Malloy is taking flack for not doing the same.
So entrenched is this fear of taxes that serious people have suggested that the governor’s proposed increases on wealthier residents, in both his original and revised plan, will actually cause them to flee the state. Despite a recent study that shows that this almost never happens, opponents of the tax plan still claim that the rich will leave unless we throw state employees out of work, eliminate social programs and slash aid to towns. In theory, this is supposed to lead to prosperity.
What it will actually lead to is higher property taxes, crime and unemployment. It’s similar to how the Bush tax cuts led to a massive deficit instead of middle class jobs, and how not raising the federal debt ceiling will lead to another financial crisis. This is the danger of short-term thinking.
America is a land in search of an easy answer to its problems. Right now, we’ve fixated on the idea that our problems are in part caused by government spending, taxes and debt, and that cutting those three things will lead us back to the greatness we imagine we once had. After all, it works for the private sector, doesn’t it? But our society and economy are complex creatures, the problems we face are often systemic and very difficult to solve, and what works (sometimes) in the business world may not work at all for government. So, if we want to really address the many problems that face us, we need to eschew short-term thinking and quick fixes, and focus on long-term solutions.
I get the sense that Governor Malloy is at least attempting to do this with his budget, which is a refreshing change from the extreme short-term thinking of the past. I have some issues with his budget, and I worry that the alternative he proposes in the event that unions don’t agree to some rather staggering concessions passes the problems on to towns. Still, I have to give him credit for trying to avoid the easy way out, especially in the face of a political culture that expects and demands easy, quick, but ultimately flawed answers.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of Connecticut Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife, and cats.