We may have hit the limit of shared sacrifice. This week Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, facing yet another budget shortfall, announced a list of “recessions,” or cuts, that fell heavily on social services and higher education.
Republicans grumbled that the $365 million shortfall was the direct result of an increase in spending during the last budget cycle, while Democrats countered by attributing the gap to issues beyond their control. The upshot: there’s less money out there for things like the Department of Labor’s “Jobs First” employment services, the Department of Health’s community health programs, and the Connecticut State University System. It could be much worse; it doesn’t look like anyone’s losing their jobs, yet, and none of the vocational-technical schools, DMV branches, or prisons are closing like the governor threatened to do during 2011’s budget fight. Unfortunately for Democrats the regular session, and a fresh budget gap in the billions of dollars, looms ominously.
Complicating matters is the sudden onset of the 2014 campaign, which likely will see a wide field of Republicans gunning for a vulnerable Malloy’s job. One of these hopefuls, House Minority Leader Larry Cafero, is in a prime position to bash any budget moves Malloy may make. Another early entrant into the 2014 race is 2010’s loser, former ambassador Thomas C. Foley, who announced his intentions this week. Foley ran on his economic and business record and nearly managed to defeat Malloy, coming within 6,000 votes of victory.
Foley’s biggest strength also is his biggest weakness: on paper he looks an awful lot like Mitt Romney. In fact, the day that news of Foley’s intent to run broke, Malloy’s 2010 campaign manager Roy Occhiogrosso took to Twitter to link his followers to an ad from that year portraying Foley as a ruthless corporate tyrant. Still, Foley may be better positioned than anyone to hit Malloy on finance and economics.
Malloy’s position is not an easy one. The elephant in the room is employee benefits and pension obligations, which are huge and ever-increasing percentages of state spending. It wouldn’t be surprising to see these on the table next year. If the governor somehow leaves pensions and benefits alone, his potential Republican opponents will accuse him of being unwilling to tackle real solutions. Foley’s Connecticut Policy Institute already has come out with a detailed policy paper on how to reduce pension costs. If Malloy does find a way to renegotiate benefits and pensions, already restive state employee unions will howl. No matter which direction the administration steps, there’s a land mine waiting.
Therefore, Malloy’s administration has started with relatively uncontroversial cuts to social services and higher education among others, and hopes things aren’t quite as dire as the forecasts predict. I expect we’ll see more cuts like this during the session, meaning the cost of college will go up, vocational-technical schools will offer less, and services benefiting the neediest and most vulnerable populations in our state will wither away.
Does the new budget crisis mean Malloy’s progressive gamble, which bucked last year’s conventional wisdom that budgets were only there for cutting, state employees for laying off, and unions for busting, hasn’t paid off? Malloy came into office promising that “shared sacrifice” would put Connecticut’s fiscal house in order, but while the abyss we’re looking into is shallower than it was two years ago, it’s still deep and dark. Malloy and his administration are now speaking the language of austerity, promising no tax hikes and looking for savings in existing programs. “State government,” said OPM secretary Ben Barnes, “must live within its means.” The public is not in the mood for anything else.
It may be too early to tell if Malloy’s more progressive 2011 budget will pay off in the long term. Connecticut tends to lag behind the rest of the nation when it comes to economic recovery, and the full effect of the governor’s reforms may not be felt until the economy picks back up. By the time that happens, though, Malloy may be back in Stamford. Then again, pundits and observers were pretty sure that a bad economy would drag down another embattled leader running against a wealthy businessman in this year’s presidential election, so there’s no telling what might happen. In the meantime, we should brace for more cuts and fewer services as we head into yet another tough year.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.