For 23 years, Connecticut’s legislators have ignored the will of the voters by not fully implementing the state’s constitutional spending cap.
Because lawmakers have not defined certain terms set out in the constitutional amendment that was approved by voters in 1992, the state’s Attorney General George Jepsen said this week in a legal opinion that it is not binding.
That’s right — for more than two decades the legislature has refused to do its job and vote on the definitions for the spending cap, so they don’t have to follow it if they don’t want to.
Aren’t we the “Constitution State?” Home of the nation’s first constitution? Does the will of the voters not mean anything to our legislators?
We are a nation of laws, and we are a nation founded on the idea that the people govern, albeit through the people they vote into office. Somehow that essential promise, that social contract, has been ignored for 23 years.
When more than 80 percent of the state’s voters approved the constitutional amendment in 1992, they did so with the understanding that this was the compromise worked out between the two warring factions in the fractious debate over whether the state should have an income tax.
Fine, have your income tax — said those who opposed the new taxing authority — but with it we want a promise that you’ll try to behave responsibly with our money.
Stop laughing. They meant it.
As explained by the Hartford Courant’s Capitol bureau chief at the time, Larry Williams, the spending cap was supposed to “smooth out the feverish swings between deficits and surpluses that have characterized Connecticut’s finances.”
The trend, he said, was “deficit, followed by tax increase, followed by surplus, followed by program expansion, followed by deficit.”
Our new trend looks even worse — deficit, followed by tax increase, followed by deficit, followed by program cuts and more tax increases, followed by deficit.
We can blame our current situation in large part on the explosion of state spending after the income tax was enacted in 1992. From that time until now, despite the spending cap, the state budget has increased by an average of 6 percent every year.
More recently, Gov. Dan Malloy’s budget chief Ben Barnes claims the state has stuck to spending growth of 3 percent. But Malloy has also borrowed a lot more money than previous governors, which means our spending is still growing faster than it should, and he is loading more debt on future generations.
We still have a spending cap in our state statutes, which was passed just before the vote on the constitutional amendment. That law says budget growth should be kept to either the growth in inflation, or an average of five years of state income growth. The legislature can vote to increase spending over the cap, but it must declare an “emergency” and vote to exceed the cap by a three-fifths vote.
Now, in Jepsen’s opinion, the legislature can vote to exceed the spending cap “by a simple majority vote,” and ignore the three-fifths requirement.
Forget you, voters.
Jepsen was responding to a request for a legal opinion from Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano.
In a statement following the release of Jepsen’s opinion, Fasano said his caucus would make defining the terms in the constitutional amendment one of their top priorities in the upcoming session.
In a statement, Fasano said the spending cap, “in its current form is insufficient and does not protect taxpayers . . . Enough is enough. Our state needs a strong spending cap, one that cannot be sidestepped.”
Enough is enough, indeed.
Fasano was right to ask for this opinion. Now, hopefully, he and his caucus will follow through on their promise to make implementing the spending cap a top priority.
Budget chief Ben Barnes said despite the opinion issued by Jepsen, that the spending cap is still the “law of the land, so I follow it.” He was speaking to a joint meeting of the Appropriations and Finance committees this week.
Barnes’ statement is somewhat ironic given the games he, Malloy, and the legislative majority have played with the cap during his tenure — shuffling money in, out, and around the cap.
Also in his testimony, Barnes tried to downplay the notion that the state is in a budget crisis.
Right. Just like the state didn’t have a deficit, as Gov. Malloy claimed in his re-election bid. Or just like Malloy wasn’t going to raise taxes, which he also promised.
Or, just like the state is going to give money to municipal governments to make up for lost car tax money. This time, they promise, things will be different — ignore the history of underfunding the other promises the state has made, like education cost sharing, payments in lieu of taxes, and on and on.
There has been a gradual, steady, erosion in the trust of our state lawmakers. They have not kept their promises to voters or to municipalities.
Before they make any more promises — transportation lockbox? — they should focus on keeping the ones they’ve already made.
Like fully implementing the constitutional spending cap.
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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