HARTFORD, CT — Connecticut’s economy is less competitive today than it was in 2001. It dropped from 8th most competitive all the way down to 43rd in 2016, according to the Beacon Hill Institute’s rankings.
That’s one of the reasons a group of business executives is hard at work navigating a path forward out of the fiscal mess.
The 14-member emergency task force, chaired by retired Webster Bank chief executive Jim Smith, and Robert Patricelli, founder of several healthcare companies in Connecticut, is expected to deliver their recommendations to the legislature to improve the situation by March 1.
In attempting to deal with Connecticut’s fiscal stability in less than three months, the task force, which is formally called the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth, is going to focus on only the most important structural problems.
“The platform is burning,” Patricelli said. “We’re going to spend as much time as we need to to have a shared understanding of the legislature and the public of how serious the situation is.”
Last week, Smith and Patricelli, visited the state Capitol press room and explained they had identified seven areas of focus.
“Our focus is on structural reform,” Smith said.
Patricelli said they would have some more specific thoughts on economic growth once the fiscal situation is clarified. He said a lot of the recommendations on the fiscal side have previously been made by past commissions, but nothing has happened with them.
“Maybe it’s some situation of crisis and political cover that can make it different this time around,” Patricelli added.
The first two areas of focus involve the unfunded state and teacher retiree pension systems and the way the state uses a collective bargaining process for benefits. They said the latter process is unusual for states.
However, Patricelli said it’s not their intention at this point to seek to reopen the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition agreement for health and pension benefits. The contract doesn’t expire until 2027, but the governor and labor could agree to reopen it.
“The question is how do you fund it,” Patricielli said. “That’s an area where we and labor could make some common cause.”
The third and fourth focus area involves Connecticut’s structure of 169 towns and fragmented public services, along with the how schools should be funded and whether the state or the local community should pay for school construction and teacher pensions.
The fifth area of focus for the task force will be the number of high net worth people leaving the state, and the sixth will be on Connecticut’s aging and bankrupt transportation system. The seventh focus will be on how to attract millennials and young families back to cities.
Jim Loree, a commission member who is president and CEO of Stanley Black and Decker, put together a PowerPoint presentation for the group that outlined where Connecticut is currently regarding its competitiveness and fiscal stability.
It goes without saying that Connecticut is lagging its peer states in both categories.
“People have to understand that the platform is burning,” Patricelli said.
He said lawmakers might have an understanding of what it means in a fiscal sense, but it’s also hurting business competitiveness and growth in the state.
“In two months we have to be prepared to communicate these complicated thoughts,” Patricelli said.
However, Smith said it’s not too late to reverse the trend. That’s a reason why so many corporate CEOs volunteered to get involved.
“Now is a good time to do it, in part because we all believe in Connecticut,” Smith added.
He said the commission would look to avoid making specific recommendations, such as which line items to cut in the state budget.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy maintained Tuesday that the primary reason Connecticut is falling behind other states is because it failed to make the necessary investments in transportation.
“To pretend that we don’t have a transportation problem in the state of Connecticut is to pretend that we don’t have four seasons,” Malloy said. “Or that the sun won’t come up tomorrow.”