So the Meriden campus of Middlesex Community College will be saved, but vital public library services may not be. The honor guard for veterans may be spared the axe, but municipal budgets might have to endure the blow. Welcome to the excruciating reality of permanent fiscal crisis.
There’s some good news in the saving of a satellite campus. CSCU president Gregory Grey, under heavy pressure from a suddenly attentive legislature, reversed his controversial earlier decision to close the Meriden instructional center and manufacturing lab. It’s less clear how all of this will be funded. The legislature seems to think the state will foot the bill, but in reality, the costs for this and for closing budget gaps elsewhere in the system will land right where they always do: on the backs of the students in the form of tuition hikes.
It’s also hard to believe that the cut to honor guards at veterans’ funerals will survive — that just seems cruel and tone-deaf. But this year, you just never know what’s going to fall; nothing is sacred.
One good program that’s on the chopping block is Connecticard, which basically makes it possible for public libraries to lend books to patrons from other towns. The Connecticut Library Consortium, which is a shared resource for buying materials, also is in danger. Smaller libraries might find themselves forced to reduce staff and hours without those funds, or at the very least not be able to purchase up to date materials. Librarians are up in arms trying to save these vital pieces of Connecticut’s excellent public library system, but it’s too soon to say whether they’ll be successful.
Meanwhile, towns and cities are clamoring for an increase in the amount of state aid in the budget and the restoration of the resident state trooper program. There’s more: cuts to social services, cuts to Medicaid, cuts to state parks, cuts to prisons, and on and on.
That’s where we’re at this year. Cuts are everywhere and they’re painful, slicing away at long-established, successful programs and endangering not just our quality of life, but our ability to be successful and competitive. It feels like a crisis year, almost like the disaster of 2011 all over again.
There’s one difference, though: in 2011, the economy had crashed. This year, it’s actually growing, if slowly, as the state and the nation continue to recover. Therefore, we somehow have a crisis budget situation when there’s no actual crisis. What’s going on?
There’s not an easy answer to that. The “shared sacrifice” budget from 2011 was supposed to stop this from happening again, but clearly that didn’t work. The state’s also increasingly expensive to run, money isn’t coming in as much from some sources, and spending has gone relatively unchecked.
So here we are. Salaries, pensions, and benefits are one of the larger pieces of the budget, but benefits are currently protected by the 2011 agreement with the state employee unions, and I doubt Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature have the stomach for a fight with the unions over layoffs and salaries. Taxes were hiked in 2011 as part of Malloy’s “shared sacrifice” plan, and he promised not to raise them again during his re-election campaign. That leaves us with what we’re looking at now; cuts.
Given that limited range of options, there’s not an easy solution. Just shouting “tax the rich!” or “cut the fat!” solves nothing. We taxed the rich. We cut what fat there was. We’re still here.
We could do something incredibly difficult and painful, like shutting some of the DMV branches, closing one of the state university campuses, or consolidating some of the courthouses. We could also try to get at the roots of our depressingly endless fiscal crisis and look for an approach to governance that balances the books. Or we could just spread that pain around by nickel-and-diming the money out of various low-cost, essential programs and maybe put some Keno machines in bars. Guess which one we’re doing?
This budget may eventually balance, but it won’t solve our problems. This kind of crisis is going to keep happening until we fix the structural problems that caused it, whether they are state employee salaries and benefits, bloated administration at our universities, an upper class that refuses to pay their fair share, thoughtless spending, unfunded mandates, or 169 wasteful little fiefdoms that need to combine services.
To do that, though, we need leadership and vision. The legislature right now has neither.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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