Connecticut’s modern constitution and I both turn 50 this year. In all, it has been a pretty good run. And while I certainly can’t claim as storied a lineage as our founding document — which dates to the Fundamental Orders in 1638 — we’ve struck up a relationship over the years.
I first swore to support it when we were 23 on my first day in the General Assembly. When we turned 26, I cosponsored the legislation to amend it with a spending cap. A year later, I joined the 81 percent of the state’s voters who adopted it.
While nothing from my twenties fits me, the cap still fits, and the constitution wears it well at 50.
In 1991, Connecticut faced enormous deficits because revenues couldn’t keep pace with double-digit spending increases that began in the late 1980s.
In a year-long ordeal that saw a stalemate between a governor insisting on an income tax and a legislature that sent him three budgets without one, the spending cap had wide appeal.
Many who voted for the income tax, and those like me who voted against it, agreed that a constitutional cap on spending was the only reform that would keep future governors and legislators from spending Connecticut into another budgetary abyss.
The cap was never meant to stop the budget from growing, but to keep state spending in line with the growth of personal income and the inflation rate.
The idea was to gather all possible means of spending under the cap, and balance it with the ability of a governor and a three-fifths super majority vote of the legislature to provide a reasonable escape measure if necessary. Debt service, because of the state’s duty to repay the debt it issues, was not included under the cap.
Through the years, the cap has worked. To be candid, history shows that fiscal responsibility gave way to temptation now and again.
Through years of booming surpluses and crushing deficits, there were budgets that cut taxes and some that raised them — yet all of which raised spending to some degree. But not to the degree that legislative Democrats passed out of the Appropriations Committee in late April.
The constitutional cap will not allow the committee’s proposed billion-dollar-plus spending increase. Yet rather than trying to muster the cross-party vote and agreement of the governor required to exceed it, lawmakers want to “redefine” the cap in a manner that would defy the intent of those who drafted and voted for it.
Instead, they’ve decided to stop counting certain kinds of spending as spending anymore — and they are poised to sweep some $2 billion in long-term pension and retiree health costs out from under the cap.
By warping the cap this way, the Appropriations Committee’s spending plan will seem like it is far under the constitutional limit — not billions of dollars over it — clearing the way for the $2.5 billion tax hike the Finance Committee passed to pay for it.
What’s the priority for lawmakers? Growing the size and cost of state government? Or growing our economy and creating more jobs?
At 50, the state constitution doesn’t need a birthday card. A call will do: to your state senator and state representative. Tell them not to shred the cap we gave it for its 26th birthday.
Brian Flaherty is senior vice president for public policy at the Connecticut Business & Industry Association. He can be reached @BrianFlahertyCT.
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