What, you thought our fight with deficits was almost over? Think again.
We tried ignoring Connecticut’s financial problems. Then, when that didn’t work, we tried shared sacrifice and raising taxes. Now we’re trying austerity and bitter agony on for size, and the good news is that should this latest budget proposal be passed, the budget deficit for this coming year will be fixed.
The bad news? Municipal property taxes are still going up, no matter what happens during the upcoming special session, so forget about a tax-hike-free budget. And, more ominously, the monetary black holes waiting for us in 2018, 2019, and 2020 are smaller, but they’re still there.
Wait, that can’t be right, you say. We’ve been hearing about structural change and slashing spending and living within our means, shouldn’t we be seeing something that’s not yet another series of ghastly out-year projections?
This isn’t how it goes in the narratives we write in our heads for these rotten sorts of years. We tell ourselves that if we buckle down and make the sacrifice, if we cut spending or raise taxes, if we endure the pain, we’ll get through it.
We’re not through it. In 2018, we’ll still be over a billion dollars in the hole, and it gets worse every year after that.
It’s a crushing thought. It’s not over. Neither shared sacrifice, tax hikes, nor austerity fixed the problem. It turns out that we’re living in the middle of Connecticut’s lost decade, and the end isn’t remotely in sight yet.
But this seems like a good place to pause and reflect on what we’ve learned from five years of watching our government unravel one dollar at a time.
The lessons of the cycles of deficits and increasingly desperate responses aren’t comfortable ones.
First, it’s become painfully obvious that these future deficit projections aren’t just gloom and doom. It’s easy for the governor and the legislature to wave off the Office of Fiscal Analysis’s warnings as pessimistic or not taking certain things into account, but they somehow always end up happening anyway. We should be taking the current red ink for 2018 and beyond very, very seriously, and we should start planning now.
Second, it’s crystal clear that there’s no easy fix for our budget problems. There are a lot of ideological arguments around taxing and spending, and none of them hold up well when it comes down to a crisis like this one. The usual liberal response to a deficit is to hike taxes on the rich to help pay for essential services, while the conservative response is to cut spending and taxes to try and jumpstart the economy. We tried hiking taxes, and we’re trying cutting spending now, and we even tried various combinations of both, but come next year we’ll be trying again to find a way to climb out of the hole we’ve fallen into.
Third, critics who see nothing but bloat in government have mostly been proven wrong. Every single one of the cuts happening now will have a tangible effect on the quality of life in our state, from the economic effects of jobs lost to the social effects of cuts to higher education and mental health services and beyond.
Lastly, I feel like we’re just starting to wake up to the fact that our tax structure doesn’t meet our needs at all. We actually do rely fairly heavily on our status as the wealthiest state in the nation, but that’s a sword that cuts both ways. Sure, when times are good and the super-rich are staying put in lower Fairfield County, we roll in dough. But a bad year for capital gains or a few billionaires changing their address to Manhattan or Florida can wreak havoc with revenue. That’s where our problem has been, and at least part of why monies coming into the state’s coffers have been so hard to predict.
This is part of why raising taxes on the rich won’t work as well as we’d like. It seems like such an easy out — go after the people with the most money. But a tax system that relies on a small, highly mobile and often financially savvy segment of society is also very much at their mercy.
Someday soon I think the middle class will find tolls on their roads and a higher income tax bite in their paychecks. That is the least palatable solution for any politician. But it’s also the only one we have yet to try.
Prepare yourselves, because this crisis has plenty of fight left in it, no matter how the votes go this week.
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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