It’s breathtaking the extent to which candidates for office will go to hide bad news. In Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s case, it’s not immediately clear whether, in advance of his re-election this month, he deliberately hid from view a projected budget deficit of almost $100 million, but the timing is certainly convenient.
Indeed, it’s caused incoming Republican Senate leader Len Fasano to proclaim that “the timing of these announcements raises serious questions. It doesn’t pass the smell test.” Well duh!
Not only was the deficit hidden until after Malloy was safely re-elected, but the announcement came out late on Nov. 14 in the form of a classic Friday afternoon news dump — a graveyard reserved for cringeworthy announcements public officials hope will be buried along with leaf raking and trips to the mall.
It’s worth noting that the Democratic majority in the legislature created the law requiring the release of consensus revenue estimates in 2009 during the Rell administration. But they changed the law in 2012 to make this post-election release of data possible, conveniently pushing back the date of the Oct. 15 release to Nov. 10.
Interestingly, Malloy’s own budget office is predicting the state will end the fiscal year with a $99.5 million budget gap, about $10.4 million more than the $89.1 million deficit the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis had projected earlier that day.
In response to this newly discovered crisis, state budget director Ben Barnes announced a hiring freeze, told state agency chiefs to review their budgets and to avoid any spending that isn’t “absolutely critical in nature.” And both Malloy and Barnes are sticking to their insistence that “raising taxes is not an option.”
We’ve seen these pre-election shenanigans before from Malloy. In his 2010 campaign for governor, he suggested he would not raise taxes and then raised them with a vengeance — as if he was making up for lost time, which he was.
Indeed, covering up budget messes is a time-honored tradition among governors. Look no farther than Massachusetts, when in 1988 Gov. Michael Dukakis was running for president. Dukakis hid his state’s emerging fiscal problems so that it wouldn’t harm his presidential bid. So did New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu, who was too busy attacking Dukakis and angling for a job with Dukakis’ opponent to pay attention to the unfolding budget disaster in Concord.
And if you flashback even farther to 1974, Dukakis first ran for governor on a “lead-pipe guarantee” that he would not raise taxes — a promise he broke after winning the election.
But perhaps the most offensive in recent memory was the 2002 performance of New York Gov. George Pataki, who in an effort ensure his election to a third term, hid from voters the condition of his state’s finances — a tactic many observers are convinced worsened the crisis because it prevented him from taking emergency measures to deal with what turned out to be a seismic $10 billion budget gap.
His re-election safely assured, Mr. Pataki confirmed a few weeks later what his detractors had been saying all along: the state faced its worst fiscal crisis in decades and he would have to make cuts in popular programs such as aid to local school districts. This is the kind of chicanery and cynicism that, if widely reported and read by our youth, could dissuade an entire generation from entering public service.
Of course, we’re not talking New-York sized numbers here in Connecticut. After all, a $100 million hole in a $19 billion budget isn’t a chasm, but the refrain is much the same. For obvious reasons, the announcement of bad budget news was delayed until after an election — at which point administration officials acted surprised, threw up their hands and talked about having to make “tough decisions,” including the likelihood of cutting popular aid to state colleges and universities, as Malloy and Barnes said may be necessary this week.
As regular readers of this column know, I voted reluctantly for Malloy as “the porcupine we know” — though I’m now wondering whether there is a more apt animal metaphor for the governor. For all their prickliness, at least porcupines aren’t shifty. They don’t pretend to be anything they’re not.
Perhaps the governor is really a cross between an ostrich and a cat — a sort of Alfred E. Neuman with claws and whiskers. That’s not a great place to be. Then again, that description would fit more than half the politicians in this country, which is actually reassuring. It makes Connecticut an average place, befitting our nickname of The Land of Steady Habits. Thank you, governor.
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