Two seemingly unrelated news stories last week caught my attention and had the noxious effect of making my blood boil.
The first was a terrific expose, made possible by Connecticut’s strong freedom-of-information laws, by Hearst’s Bill Cummings detailing the disgusting abuse visited upon taxpayers by Robert Kennedy, the former president of the state Board of Regents.
Kennedy, you may recall, was pushed out of his post after only 13 months when officials discovered he was doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in raises for top executives and office staff without approval from the Regents. Now we learn that, in addition to spreading taxpayer wealth around to his subordinates, Kennedy was also feathering his own nest.
Kennedy, the former president of the University of Maine, had an almost half-a-million-dollar-a-year compensation package — far more than the governor himself — before he resigned in disgrace. But his paycheck, generous as it was, doesn’t tell even half the story.
His Highness also billed the state for expensive wine-filled meals with fellow employees and accepted an unvouchered $25,000 expense account along with the use of a new $36,863 Toyota Highlander. He spent (and billed to taxpayers) $400 on gourmet coffee, $75 for flowers for a staff member, and $111 for a Sirius XM radio subscription for the fancy SUV.
In light of the state’s dire economic circumstances, Kennedy’s actions are especially egregious and indefensible. My state representative, co-chair of the Legislature’s Higher Education Committee Roberta Willis, captured my feelings exactly: “You just made my head explode,” she said after being told by Hearst of Kennedy’s regal spending habits.
Moreover, higher education administrators are being hired all over the state university system at high salaries at a time when most rank-and-file state workers are under a wage freeze as part of labor concessions made during last year’s budget crisis. And this happened at a time when our state judges, who haven’t had a pay increase in five years and are the 45th lowest paid in the nation, are having to beg for a raise.
Yet we were told by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that the solution to our state’s fiscal woes was a policy of “shared sacrifice” — a combination of record tax increases, cuts in social services for the less fortunate and givebacks by state employees. I guess someone forgot to send the memo to the higher education bosses and their masters.
So how do we close the budget gap for the current fiscal year caused, in part, by the pigs feeding at the public higher education trough? Well, it’s hard to know since the amount of the shortfall seems to change daily. One idea floated by UConn economist Fred Carstensen is to impose a special tax on people who don’t live in Connecticut — perhaps either a commuter tax or a special levy on out-of-staters who own property here.
I like Carstensen. He almost always talks sense about the economy and especially about the business climate in the state. Soaking out-of-staters might be a politically popular measure since they can’t vote lawmakers who endorsed the tax out of office. But do we really want to discourage people from buying property here?
Here in the Northwest Corner, where manufacturing all but vanished with the death of the iron industry a hundred years ago, our economy is frighteningly dependent upon what we call — sometimes derisively, sometimes affectionately — “the weekenders.”
Tens of thousands of locals — contractors, retailers, restaurateurs, lawn and tree service owners and their employees — depend on part-timers for their livelihoods. Weekenders from the New York metropolitan region already pay high property taxes on their upscale Connecticut properties and demand little in the way of services. Many move here permanently upon retirement and lend their expertise to local boards and non-profits. Singling them out for a special tax would surely have the effect of making a second home less attractive and it would just as surely throw a lot of locals out of work.
Sure, it would probably drive down housing prices for the locals who remain but, as a friend of mine who works in retail commented on Facebook, “I’d be curious to see how cheap property becomes, but I can’t buy a house if I’m unemployed.”
Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com, is the editor of ctessentialpolitics.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He can be found on Twitter @terrycowgill.