It goes without saying that the best way to approach budget cutting is to take no prisoners. Unfortunately, that simple principle is easier to declare in state government than it is to practice.
Most of the money is in state employee salaries and legacy benefits. But unless the unions agree to reopen their contracts, labor costs are all but impossible to control. Even layoffs poison the well for the next round of collective bargaining. And, as the twice-convicted felonious former Gov. John Rowland can attest, layoffs of state employees can even result in a nasty lawsuit.
That leaves us with the low-hanging fruit. So officials go after the Department of Social Services and healthcare for low-income residents. For the most part, people who depend on those programs don’t have high-priced unions or lobbyists looking after their interests.
Next comes passing the buck to municipalities – especially the little ones with fewer votes and fewer Democrats. Yes, our diminutive towns do have lobbying groups like the Connecticut Council of Small Towns (aptly shortened to COST), but they lack the muscle of, say, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, which includes the state’s big cities, or the state Association of Boards of Education, which represents elected officials in each of the state’s 169 towns and cities.
But it’s looking more and more like even COST cannot save the small towns from footing the entire bill for the resident state trooper program. That’s causing fiscal fright in towns like Salisbury and Salem, where it would be prohibitively expensive to start and maintain municipal police departments.
That was the wisdom behind the resident trooper program to begin with. In the absence of the county sheriffs departments so many other states have, the State Police and the General Assembly saw a law-enforcement void and established the resident state trooper program in 1947, about 10 years before then-Gov. Abraham Ribicoff led the charge to abolish county government, which he rightly called “a museum piece” — “eight little empires” that exist “for purely political purposes of power, prestige and patronage.”
In the old days, the state paid for 100 percent of the program, then 50 percent and, over the past several years, it’s been whittled down to 30 percent for the 56 towns currently in the program.
Some have argued here and elsewhere that small towns should stop complaining and get with the program. After all, larger municipalities with their own police forces must foot the bill themselves with little or no help from the state.
I can certainly appreciate that point of view, but it ignores that fact that small towns typically get far less back from Hartford than they pay in taxes, especially when compared to cities with their own police forces and a toxic array of costly social problems often addressed at state expense.
But if, in its infinite wisdom, the General Assembly decides to end the resident trooper subsidy entirely, then some changes in the program are very much in order. If the state withdraws its funding completely, shifting about $4.6 million onto towns that use the program as an alternative to having a municipal police force, resident troopers should not be called out of town on State Police emergencies, as they are currently.
“Is the governor going to ensure that the resident trooper remains in the town he’s assigned to?” Rep. Mike France (R-Preston) asked Gov. Malloy’s budget chief Ben Barnes at a committee meeting last week. “When I was in municipal government, the reason we were only paying 70 percent was because there were state duties that the trooper had to perform.”
Barnes said he wasn’t aware of that problem and would look into it. In Hartford terms, that’s where ideas go to die.
And I like the idea of Rep. Craig Miner (R-Litchfield) to give towns more flexibility in their use of local constables. Again, Barnes made no promises beyond looking into the matter.
But the real test will be whether state lawmakers will permit towns to evenly split ticket revenue with the state, as happens in Massachusetts. That would allow towns to underwrite the costs of police protection. Currently, towns have little incentive to direct their resident troopers to set up speed traps because the revenue goes straight to state coffers.
I’m prepared for the subsidy to end. The governor and General Assembly are staring at deficits of more than $2 billion over the next couple of years, but it’s only fair to give the towns more tools to compensate for the added expense.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.
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