Connecticut’s General Assembly will reconvene on Thursday to consider Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s request for broad power to balance the state’s budget himself. It is a request that the legislature should refuse.
It was never going to be easy to balance Connecticut’s budget. With the poor economy putting downward pressure on revenues, recession layoffs swelling the ranks of the unemployed, and the resultant spike in demand for state services, Connecticut’s balance sheet was squeezed into a $3.4 billion deficit. Gov. Malloy’s best-case scenario was to make everyone equally unhappy. He called it “shared sacrifice”.
Spreading out the pain meant the imposition of the largest tax increase in state history, an agency reorganization plan to reshape state government but yield very modest savings, and $1.6 billion in concessions from state employees. In the absence of significant structural reforms to state government itself, like spinning off some functions to the private sector, implementing significant e-government reforms to replace recurring labor costs with capital investments, or otherwise narrowing the scope of what government ought to do, there was little margin for error built into the plan.
Seventy-seven taxes or fees were increased, imposed, made permanent, extended, or expanded to drain an additional $2.5 billion from the state economy over the next two years. The bureaucracy shuffles, meanwhile, will require a whole bunch of new business cards and reformatted organizational charts (the state’s longstanding and much simpler solution to this problem? No org charts in the first place) but little in terms of savings.
At the center of the budgetary house of cards, however, were always the savings to be gleaned from employee concessions and contract givebacks. The Governor’s passive-aggressive approach to the state’s employees revived the unlikeable streak of hubris that sunk Malloy’s 2006 gubernatorial candidacy (which manifested itself as a gratuitous television ad that pasted his male opponent’s head on a female body) and nearly sunk his 2010 candidacy after wholly distasteful debate performances. When turned on state employees, Malloy’s rhetoric sounded more like a hostage-taking than a contract negotiation, as he pointedly noted: “We will lay people off on a large scale for which I will not feel responsible.”
For a while, the bullying and chest thumping seemed to produce results. After the announcement of the “framework” of a deal in May with the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, or SEBAC, it appeared as though everything was falling into place for the Malloy administration.
But in little-noticed conversations with fellow workers and at meetings with their union leadership, the state’s rank and file employees were airing complaints and asking questions for weeks prior to the ratification vote. Unsatisfied with the answers and surprisingly skeptical of the entire process, these employees decided to ignore the bullying words of the man their union dues helped elect and rejected the deal.
Malloy’s new plan now relies on the legislature granting him the broad authority necessary to balance the budget singlehandedly. He seeks to double his rescission authority and an unchecked ability to reduce municipal aid.
It is true that the legislature is an unwieldy organization on its best day. Getting a majority of them to do virtually anything, let alone balancing the budget in a hurry, is incredibly difficult work. This is no accident but rather how the legislature was designed – it’s a deliberative body. Legislators were elected by the people of Connecticut to make decisions about how state government spends its money.
If granted, the new authority would give Malloy the ability to reduce agency budgets by up to 10 percent. The legislative process that it took for the General Assembly to determine those budgets spanned months of legislative hearings, constituent meetings, and public advocacy efforts, all of which will have had little meaning if the legislature bows to Mr. Malloy now. The unlimited ability to reduce municipal aid alone would put roughly $3.6 billion at Malloy’s discretion. Such authority should not rest with any one person even if they happen to be Governor.
In a crisis, there is always an impulse to abandon the normal course, cry havoc, and make up the rules as you go along. But it is precisely for times such as this that the rules were implemented in the first place. Surrendering such broad authority to Gov. Malloy would give him power on a monarchical scale and the legislature should not go along with it. They should do their constitutional duty and not look to the Governor to do it for them.
Heath W. Fahle served as executive director of the Connecticut Republican Party from 2007-09. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com.