ConnecticutHistory.org

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey is fond of talking about regionalism and efficiencies that can be realized through improved economies of scale. More recently he’s been floating the idea of repealing Connecticut’s regressive car tax. I suspect the two concepts are connected but not in a way he would like us to believe.

Unique among all other states except Rhode Island, Connecticut has no county government whatsoever. Vowing to end the corruption-larded system in 1954, then-Gov. Abraham Ribicoff famously called Connecticut’s county system “a museum piece” — “eight little empires” that exist “for purely political purposes of power, prestige and patronage.”

Evidently, Republican lawmakers were happy with the smelly system and resisted its dissolution. But led by Democrats, the General Assembly voted to end county government in 1957, with the last county employees drawing a paycheck in 1960 when the phase-out was completed.

But the absence of a regional governing entity left a void. Over the last several decades, Democrats were horrified to see Connecticut’s 169 municipalities mostly left to their own devices. They developed their own planning and zoning regulations, their own building codes and hired their own probate judges and sanitarians. Oh, the horror.

That has left progressives looking for a way to make towns less dependent on themselves. Because, or so the reasoning goes, they will make regrettable choices — “bad decisions,” in Sharkey’s words — in the name of expanding their grand lists. Consequently, big-box stores, suburban-style subdivisions, and other phenomena objectionable to urban progressives have proliferated. Sprawl has become the order of the day.

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Ergo, the talk of regionalism couched mostly in bromides about “efficiencies.” Sharkey and his followers are smart enough to know that voters will never go for a return to county government, so they’re framing the debate more in terms of tax reform than expansive government.

But advocates for abolishing the car tax have a steeper hill to climb than their colleagues who wanted to do the same to county government 55 years ago. There is no clear consensus among Democrats or Republicans on getting rid of the vehicle tax because no one in his right mind believes the state will ever step forward to reimburse municipalities for the $650 million per year in lost revenue.

And what have legislative leaders done to assure towns they won’t be bankrupted by the loss of revenue? The Municipal Opportunities and Regional Efficiencies Commission, newly relaunched by Sharkey, sounds like a committee in search of an acronym. MORE has identified only $4.9 million to replace hundreds of millions in lost municipal tax receipts. In other words, MORE is less — in this case, $645.1 million less. Talk about paying for “bad decisions.”

More realistic, Sharkey conceded, is the idea of a single statewide mill rate for vehicles. Progressives do have a good case to make that the car tax is highly regressive. I’m fortunate to live in a prosperous town, Salisbury, that has lots of part-time residents from New York. The weekenders pay high taxes and demand little in the way of services. Combine that with high assessments in a desirable town, and Salisbury’s mill rate is low. So if I lived in a less affluent town with a high mill rate like Torrington or Winsted, I’d pay at least twice as much in taxes on the same 2011 Honda Civic. Hardly seems fair.

But how would such a system work? Who would collect the car tax if it was based on a statewide mill rate? If the car-tax mill rates of wealthy towns went up because the fairness police considered them to be too low, what would those towns do with all that extra cash? Use it to bring down the local property tax mill rate? That’s hardly the progressive outcome Sharkey is hoping for.

No. My guess is the difference between the old mill rate and the equalized rate would have to be turned over to the state — or perhaps the entire equalized car tax would be collected by the state. Either way, this takes us to the real “efficiencies” Sharkey is trying to obtain.

Isn’t all this talk about our “broken” tax system just another way of saying, “We don’t have the votes to raise tax rates right now but we have to find a way to get more money from the wealthy and give it to the state?” And why would we want to do that? Because they have it.

Look, I’m not philosophically averse to higher taxes on the rich, but I do expect honesty from my elected officials. And the approach of the car tax reform advocates doesn’t pass the smell test.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and was an editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.