An accountant and an economist tossed cold water on Connecticut’s financial outlook this week when they released a report detailing the “deep fiscal hole” policymakers have dug the state into over the past few decades.
The report by Fred Carstensen, an economist and director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, and former U.S. Comptroller David Walker who heads the Comeback America Initiative, found that Connecticut has “some of the highest — if not the highest — total liabilities and unfunded obligations per taxpayer of any state in the nation.”
According to the report if you add up the unfunded pension liabilities, retiree health care, and bonded debt, the cost per taxpayer in Connecticut is $37,693. The only other state that comes close to that is New Jersey where the per-taxpayer liability is $36,480. According to Truth in Accounting Connecticut’s per-taxpayer burden increased to $50,900 in 2011. That’s the when all the debt and assets are combined on a per capita basis. Click here to find out how they did their calculation.
“Beginning in the 1990s, state employee retirement programs were expanded considerably,” the report released this week found. “For several years now, elected officials have not made the necessary contributions to fund the promised benefits.”
That changed last year when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy implemented a plan he hopes will get the funds to achieve 80 percent funding in 2025 and 100 percent in 2032. In order to get there he’s increasing the actuarially required contribution by about $125 million.
But Carstensen and Walker pointed out that Malloy’s plan may not be enough.
“These steps were much too modest and came at the price of a four-year, no-layoff commitment to state employees,” the report says. “In addition, the state’s major labor contract, covering benefits, is not scheduled to reopen until 2022. This appears unrealistic because Connecticut’s current fiscal path is unsustainable.”
Unfunded pension debt isn’t the only thing making Connecticut less competitive as a state. There’s also the tax burden.
Carstensen and Walker pointed out that while Connecticut is perceived as being a high-tax state, that’s not entirely fair or accurate.
At the state level, Connecticut ranks 18th in the nation in state taxes collected as a percent of personal income. If local government taxes are factored in, Connecticut’s tax burden ranks 13th in the nation, below that of New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
The report found that the state has relied too heavily on certain industries over the past two decades, which may have caused higher unemployment rates than the national average.
“For the past several decades Connecticut’s economy has been heavily reliant on the financial, insurance, and real estate industry (FIRE), with approximately 32 percent of its economy in the industry, compared to 21 percent of the nation as a whole,” according to the report. “Thus, Connecticut was disproportionately impacted by the financial crisis. But even before 2007, the industry did not experience employment growth, due in part to accelerating productivity resulting from increased use of information technology.”
Also the lack of meaningful participation in the information technology revolution by the manufacturing industry hurt the state’s competitiveness.
“These two issues, overreliance on financial services and a decline in key industries, contribute to a relatively weak small business sector, with very few young and innovative firms, which are the primary engines of job creation,” the report concludes.
Carstensen and Walker said they wrote the report not to “criticize current or past policymakers’ decisions, or to dwell on negative aspects of the state’s challenges. Rather, the purpose is to present information to facilitate a productive discussion about how to create a better future in Connecticut.”
To that end, the two offered a series of recommendations.
The first is that Connecticut must put its finances in order, especially with regard to restructuring pension and healthcare plans to make them fair, affordable and sustainable. The second is that the state must take steps to attract businesses in the sectors that can grow Connecticut’s economy in the future — such as digital technology, biomedical innovation, and pharmaceuticals. The third is the need to create a culture of transparency, accountability, and transformation at all levels of government in order to address economic inefficiencies and disparities that arise, in part, from the fact that Connecticut is one of only two states without county government.