Hartford, Conn. (f11photo via Shutterstock)
(f11photo via Shutterstock)
TERRY COWGILL

They say presidential campaigns really begin the day after the congressional midterm elections. On the state level, Connecticut’s gubernatorial campaign unofficially begins after the presidential election halfway through the governor’s term.

And if there was any question about whether the race to succeed Gov. Ned Lamont has begun, it has hereby been answered. Lamont’s old adversary, businessman and 2018 Republican gubernatorial nominee Bob Stefanowski, fired the first shot when he penned an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal last week attacking the capital city and wondering aloud “What isn’t the matter with Hartford?”

Stefanowski’s guest column can be found here, but only if you have a subscription because, unlike CTNewsJunkie, the Journal has a gated paywall. The fact that Stefanowski decided to focus on Connecticut’s nerve center – and that he chose to do so on a platform unavailable to most Nutmeggers – is curious. The businessman has always enjoyed telling us what a mess the state is – and he is at least partly correct – but in this column he has aimed his rhetorical bombs squarely at one city.

I’m thinking there are two reasons for this. First, Hartford is where the state government resides. Various state departments are headquartered there. The Capitol and the Legislative Office Building next door are typically full of lawmakers and their aides.

Hartford is also where former House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, who is widely expected to run for governor next year, spent 20 years toiling away in the legislature – the last four as Republican leader in the lower chamber. If he has to battle Klarides for the nomination, Stefanowski will no doubt insist that, as a longtime denizen of the Capitol, Klarides was part of the problem, is therefore damaged goods and could not mount a credible campaign against Lamont and the establishment forces in state government.

My personal favorite for the GOP nomination would be former Senate Minority Leader John McKinney. But even in the unlikely event that McKinney steps into the ring, Stefanoswki will be ready to punch the former senator in the nose over his 16 years roaming the halls of the LOB. Stefanowski, who has never worked in government and thus has no history in it, will surely attack those who actually have track records as being “part of the problem.”

The other reason Stefanowski has aimed his sights squarely at the city of Hartford is its ambitious young mayor, Luke Bronin, whom he attacked repeatedly in the piece. Bronin, Stefanowski said, “seemed – on paper, at least – like the right man for the job of turning around a city plagued by deep and persistent fiscal problems.”

Then Stefanowski proceeded to hammer away at Hartford’s headaches which – let’s acknowledge it right here – are indeed considerable, burdened as the city is with debt, pension costs, and the highest mill rate in the state. Things got so bad, Stefanowski said, that Bronin, who himself ran for governor briefly in 2018, made a “threat” to then-Gov. Dannel Malloy to declare bankruptcy, leading Malloy to cave and the General Assembly to pass a bipartisan measure assuming more than half a billion dollars of Hartford’s general obligation debt.

With the city’s debt cleared, Bronin then went on a regionalism tour in order to, as Stefanowski put it, “pitch a zany left-wing idea” that “sane people call a tax grab.” Stefanowski even went after Bronin’s wife, Sara, an architect and lawyer, for founding DesegregateCT, a new nonprofit that wants to change Connecticut’s outdated and discriminatory zoning laws, which it believes “marginalize low-income residents of color, impede our economy, and harm our environment.”

Stefanowski’s broadside elicited a stream of activity on Twitter, including a thread started by my colleague Susan Jane Bigelow, who branded his polemic “an ignorant editorial”:

Here’s the problem with Stefanowski’s analysis: While I actually share some of his concerns about the mismanagement of Connecticut’s big cities and giving the state excessive control over local zoning, Stefanowski does not suggest any solutions to the cities’ problems beyond typical conservative bromides about fiscal responsibility, attracting new businesses, reducing regulations, and opening more charter schools.

How would he address the structural problems that plague a city like Hartford? Because of the government property and nonprofits located within its limits, along with the constraints of its geography, Hartford’s tax base is extremely limited. According to research by the Hartford Business Journal, Hartford’s taxable grand list – including real estate, personal property and motor vehicles – is only $4 billion; a slightly higher amount of property is tax exempt.

Yes, the state funds roughly half of Hartford’s operating budget, but it’s a well-known fact that Connecticut’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program does not even begin to fully reimburse municipalities for tax liabilities the state and tax-exempt organizations would have if their properties were on the tax rolls. According to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, the percentage of reimbursement fluctuates between 25 and 45%. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Hartford’s mill rate is so high, Bob.

And the state’s reimbursement policy gets even worse in times of fiscal crisis such as we have experienced over the last decade. According to the Office of Legislative Research, “both PILOTs are proportionately reduced if the state’s annual appropriation is not enough to fully fund them.” In layman’s terms, PILOT is one of the first budget items to be cut when the going gets rough.

As for Hartford’s spending, I’m sure it could be cut. But in defense of the cities, which are favorite whipping boys of conservative Republicans, they are magnets for the poor and for recent immigrants of limited means who are looking for opportunity. These folks typically need more in the way of services than those in the wealthy shoreline towns east of New Haven, where Stefanowski lives. And they often do not own cars, so they need access to public transportation, which the cities have and suburban and rural communities lack.

Wealthier towns are also able to structure their zoning codes to make it more difficult to build affordable housing, leaving that market to Connecticut’s larger cities and faded mill towns such as Winsted and Willimantic. So affluent communities, which Stefanowski calls “well-managed towns,” are mostly left with residents of means who demand little in the way of services.

So what would Stefanowski do to address the structural problems that plague cities like Hartford, Bridgeport, and Waterbury? Would he demand that nonprofits pay more and the state fully fund PILOTs? Would he use the strength of his office to relax zoning codes in towns like Madison and Weston to be more conducive to low-income housing so that places like Hartford don’t bear a disproportionate burden?

Would he strengthen the state’s 8-30g affordable housing statute, which allows developers in towns with insufficient affordable housing stock to appeal unfavorable municipal rulings to the state? Would he push for more mass transit outside the cities? Don’t bet on it, seeing as he has sought to phase out the income tax. The above measures would involve either spending money or offending Stefanowski’s supporters.

Like Stefanowski, I’m a capitalist. I believe in markets. There are, however, situations in which the markets do not serve us well, and that’s where government comes in. Health care, with its lengthy list of perverse incentives, is one example. Furthermore, a corporation can increase its market share by getting bigger, but we have antitrust laws to rein in monopolies that harm consumers.

In the end, Stefanowski’s abiding faith in market-based solutions and his tendency to blame labor unions for all our woes is the fatal flaw of his piece. Love them or hate them, but at least advocates for cities are proposing solutions to problems. Meanwhile, Bob complains.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.