After a rather rosy presentation on the state’s economy at the first meeting of the new “Commission on Economic Competitiveness,” Joe Brennan, CEO of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said he didn’t want to be a “skunk at the garden party,” but he also felt compelled to speak honestly.
“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have a problem,” he said, pouring the cold water of reality on a meeting that had, up to that point, been a demonstration in the kind of boosterism that state officials have felt compelled to engage in since our “permanent fiscal crisis” started.
The commission was created to placate the business community during state budget negotiations, but at its first meeting even Kevin Sullivan, commissioner of the Department of Revenue Services, expressed skepticism that this group was going to accomplish anything given that lawmakers have for years ignored other commissions just like it.
In her presentation to the panel, Catherine Smith, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, urged attendees not to speak negatively about Connecticut.
But Brennan didn’t come to play. He hears from business leaders every day about what they’re seeing and how they’re feeling about the state — and he’s worried.
“There is an extreme amount of concern out there right now about our economic future,” he said.
Brennan doesn’t have an incentive to talk Connecticut down — CBIA loses membership dollars as people move out of the state. He wants to see the number of businesses in the state increase, so he’s not using “negative” language to drive them out.
He’s being a skunk at the garden party because something stinks, and he’s frustrated because Malloy administration officials pretend they don’t smell it.
It isn’t just business leaders who are frustrated — the frustration is felt from the young man in Hartford looking for a job, to the suburban mom whose property taxes keep going up, to the small business owner who is trying to figure out how to pay the state’s excessive estate taxes while still leaving her children a nest egg.
How can the “Commission on Economic Competitiveness” succeed if there isn’t first an acknowledgement that there are real problems facing the people of Connecticut?
Just this week we saw another round of budget cuts because revenues are projected to come in lower than previously forecast. You don’t have to tell the hospitals, which took the brunt of the cuts, that the state has a problem.
At the Republican budget hearing in May, New Haven Chamber of Commerce President Tony Rescigno said that he recently met with a group of corporate site selectors — the women and men who tell companies where they should relocate. But after three days of showing them all that Connecticut has to offer, they told him his efforts were in vain.
He said they told him, “We can’t recommend Connecticut to any of our clients, because if we did they would not be our clients for very long, because they go by the cost of doing business here.”
It shouldn’t be this way. Much of what Catherine Smith told the economic competitiveness panel was true: We have an educated workforce, a prime location, great universities, and a beautiful state. Business leaders — and the jobs they bring with them — should be flocking to our state.
But they’re not.
Thanks to the strength of the national economy, Connecticut is seeing some job growth. But the state still has not recovered all the jobs lost in the 2008 recession. Despite Connecticut and a few other states still lagging behind their pre-crash employment levels, the nation’s job growth overall reached full recovery by April 2014.
In 2011, we saw some signs of recovery right before the state was hit with the biggest tax hike in history. We saw some signs of recovery again earlier this year, but will the latest round of tax hikes set us back?
From January to May of this year the state added 17,000 people to the labor force — which is the number of people working or looking for work in Connecticut. Since May, the labor force has shed 18,000 people, so it is now smaller than it was in January. We’re still higher than we were a year ago, but the numbers are headed in the wrong direction.
Our state needs jobs. I’m going to go against the prevailing wisdom here and say we need any jobs — not just high paying jobs, but entry-level jobs and jobs anywhere in between.
One of the problems our lawmakers have from spending so much time listening to organized labor is that they’ve bought the argument that low-paying jobs are bad. Most of the people who are out of work just want a job, and they’d take an entry-level job even if the pay is low — not because that’s where they want to stay, but with the hope that the first job will lead to another job, and so on.
Jobs don’t just bring money. They bring dignity and a sense of self-reliance. No government program can replace that.
We also need to see a cultural shift in the way we talk about businesses and the men and women who run them. House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz did the state no favors when he claimed the tax hikes would mean taxpayers would just have to “take a weekend off from the yacht.”
That kind of language is unsurprising when it is used by the far left at a rally, but it is not the kind of thing you’d expect an elected official to say.
The drumbeat against wealth continued this week when Malloy administration officials tried to cover their move to cut millions in health care spending by blaming hospital executive pay.
Of course, there was no talk of the raises Gov. Dannel P. Malloy gave his closest advisors that put them well up in the top 2 to 3 percent of all earners in this country. At the time, the administration claimed it needed to stay competitive if it wanted to retain top talent. Apparently hospitals are not given the same latitude.
Yes, the state needs to slow spending, and yes, it needs to lower taxes and reduce regulation. But until we end the open hostility toward the people and businesses who pay for most of our state government, we’ll likely continue to see them packing their bags and heading for friendlier states.
Suzanne Bates is the policy director for the Yankee Institute for Public Policy. She lives in South Windsor with her family. Follow her on Twitter @suzebates.
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