What would Lowell Weicker do? Cut state spending, ‘big time’

CROMWELL – The two Republican governors who followed him were “corrupt or disinterested.” And the legislature’s Democrats are “sauced up on spending and borrowing.”

Lowell P. Weicker Jr. is back, blunt and quotable as ever. But the man who gave Connecticut the income tax in 1991 has a very different prescription for its present fiscal crisis.

“Cut spending, and I mean big time,” Weicker said Thursday.

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Lowell P. Weicker serving up his prescription for curing the state’s financial problems at the annual meeting of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (Mark Pazniokas)

The next governor, who faces a deficit of $3.4 billion, has to be willing to inflict pain, incite anger and make peace with the idea that he might only be around for one term, as was the case with Weicker.

Officials gathered for the annual meeting of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities greeted Weicker inside a hotel ballroom with a standing ovation. Outside, four Tea Party protesters met him with placards, including one that demanded: “Cut state spending.”

The former governor agreed with the sentiment.

Weicker, 79, who inherited a $1 billion budget shortfall when he took office as Connecticut’s 85th governor in January 1991, noted that facing only four protesters represents progress.

After the passage of the income tax in August 1991, Weicker faced a protest on the Capitol lawn that police said drew more than 40,000 angry demonstrators. Weicker waded into the crowd and was spat on.

Weicker recalled the famous quip by Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee, “Lowell Weicker is the only man I know who would light a match to look into a gas can to see if it’s empty.”

“I don’t want to hear any more pejoratives about the income tax and Lowell Weicker. And I’ll tell you why – cause everybody’s had 19 years to repeal it,” Weicker said. “It hasn’t been repealed, but it certainly has been spent.”

Quoting cartoonist Walt Kelly and his creation, Pogo, Weicker said everyone was too blame for the state’s losing its fiscal discipline: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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Protesters greet Lowell Weicker in Cromwell Thursday (Mark Pazniokas)

“I define us as the Republican governors who are either corrupt or disinterested. I want to talk about us as relates to Democratic legislators who are sauced up on spending and borrowing,” Weicker said.

But Weicker said he also was referring to taxpayers, now enjoying state and federal government services that will be paid for by their children and grandchildren.

“As we all know in this room, the tab is coming due again,” he said.

Weicker’s name will forever be linked to a tax, but he said the state’s approach to fiscal soundness today must focus on spending.

“So yes, the spending cuts have to come, and they have got to be huge,” Weicker said. “And we have got to stop bonding, I mean just about bring it to an end. We’ve reached our limit. We’re way past it.”

But Weicker’s one specific recommendation for a structural change in government would require a massive spending increase: the total state takeover of education, K-12. He said that expense of education should shift from municipalities to the state.

Overall, his message was that the state has to reassess what it can afford. Only after deep cuts, he said, should legislators look to more taxes to pay for what is left.

“It’s going to be a very cold shower for very drunk state,” he said.

Weicker was a Republican first selectman of Greenwich, congressman and U.S. senator, but he was elected governor as an independent. He said the state needs officials willing to defy their own parties.

Weicker said he saw Democrats and Republicans with the courage to do what was unpopular in 1991, when state spending was cut and the state’s tax strucuture was overhauled: the sales tax, some business taxes and taxes on investments were cut, while a tax on wages was imposed.

“I’ve seen men and women who have been there,” he said.

Weicker made clear he had little regard for his successors, John G. Rowland and M. Jodi Rell. He defeated Rowland in 1990, then was succeeded by him after not seeking re-election in 1994.

Rowland resigned in 2004 in the face of an impeachment inquiry and federal corruption investigation. Rell took office and was elected in her own right in 2006.

He mentioned neither governor by name in his 20-minute speech, but Weicker said during a question-and-answer period that Rell’s popularity as she prepares to leave office was no accomplishment he envied.

“Maybe it is because she didn’t do much,” Weicker said. “A governor should be an activist. I just don’t see that from the Rell administration. Do I think she’s a nice lady? Yes, I certainly do.”

Weicker said he would love to see more independents in politics, but he doesn’t see Joseph I. Lieberman, the man who defeated him for the U.S. Senate, as a model. Lieberman became an independent only after losing the Democratic nomination, he said.

“I really just don’t think he’s an independent,” Weicker said. “I think he’s for Joe Lieberman.”