Well, we knew it wasn’t going to be a sunny, positive, or inspirational speech. The only thing to recommend Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s seventh State of the State address is that his budget speech, to be delivered next month, will be a lot worse.
If the speech is anything to go by, we’re in for yet another year of painful budget cuts, agency “modernizations” that will hopefully go better than the DMV computer fiasco, and bitter negotiations with public sector unions about concessions, benefits, and pensions.
I give Malloy credit, though, he did try to frame the loathsome, fire-breathing budget dragon the legislature attempts to wrestle with every year as something that could be tamed with some hard decisions and sacrifice.
“In September, my administration asked agencies to begin thinking about what additional cuts would mean,” Malloy said. “Having further explored these options, many of their recommendations will be included in the budget I present to you next month.”
That doesn’t sound too bad, until it turns out that your local DMV and courthouse will close and your library won’t do interlibrary loan anymore.
In the same vein, “. . . my administration will continue working with labor leaders to find solutions for bringing employee costs in line with our economic reality,” doesn’t sound terrible until you remember that what he really means is brutal cuts to pensions, benefits, and salaries that will leave what’s left of the state workforce even more demoralized.
Malloy also tried to sell us his own record at growing the economy and slashing government over the past few years. He touted low unemployment, the fact that manufacturers like Sikorsky and Pratt are expanding in the state, and the “recovery” of 85,000 jobs lost in what he’s calling the Great Recession.
The worst part for Malloy is that he’s actually right, things are indeed better than they were — but that’s like saying the frying pan is a little less hot than the fire. People in this state still feel left behind and pessimistic about the future, mainly because while things have improved, they haven’t improved enough relative to other states. We’re losing young people, the state budget is a disaster, GE moved its headquarters to Boston last year, and our capital city is a basket case that can neither build a ballpark nor balance a budget.
The rest of the speech, unfortunately, underscores just how bad things have gotten.
In order to plug this latest in a series of small leaks on the good ship Titanic, the governor is targeting three things: cuts to agencies, reform of pensions and benefits, and reformulating aid to towns and cities.
That last one is going to be a serious doozy.
Sure, there will be some layoffs, another predictably painful round of employee concessions, and a stab at reforming pensions that does nothing to really undo the damage previous administrations and legislatures left us with. But recalculating aid to towns is something much different.
The big idea here is that the executive branch will figure out whether your town needs a lot of state aid, or just a little bit. Because most of the money the state sends to towns goes to education costs, this is really all about funding public schools. And as Malloy said, “Connecticut needs a new way to calculate educational aid — one that guarantees equal access to a quality education regardless of zip code.”
Does that mean we’re going to dump town-based school districts, which are engines of segregation and provincialism? Probably not, though I wish we would.
What it means is that cities are going to get a much larger share of state aid, while rich towns with high-performing schools will see their state aid dwindle. Malloy also said, while clearly thinking of our slowly sinking capital city, that this would mean that “. . . no Connecticut city or town will need to explore the avoidable path of bankruptcy.”
So if you’re in Greenwich, West Hartford, or Simsbury, prepare for your property taxes to go up. And there it is: the tax increase on the rich. Good. Let’s hope it comes with some sensible alternative ways for towns to make money, like local sales and hotel taxes.
Is this the final fix the budget needs? Hardly. I also doubt that the legislature will find the courage to ignore the howls of protest from their towns to pass Malloy’s reform to municipal aid.
But this is the governor’s last biannual budget, unless the universe burps and he runs for and wins another term. The grim budget realities of 2019 will be someone else’s problem.
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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