The choice for Connecticut: Cheaper and poorer, or better and richer

When the special jobs session called by Governor Malloy convenes next month, the question legislators-and the rest of us-should ask is what sort of Connecticut we want: cheaper and poorer, or better and richer?

Strip away the politics and posturing and that is the heart of the matter. Do we cut people’s wages, curtail public services, and try to compete with poorer states on cost, or do we take the steps needed to regain our place at the head of the pack?

For generations Connecticut was one of the most innovative, productive, prosperous places in the world. Ours was a “thoroughbred” economy–high cost, but worth every penny. We created breakthrough technologies and world-class ideas, and the jobs this produced paid handsomely. With a talented workforce and close proximity to New York and Boston, Connecticut ran at the head of the pack, and our people prospered.

We all know the world has changed. Global competitors have caught up, and our economy no longer delivers prosperity to many of our citizens. Over the last generation, Connecticut has ranked last among states in job growth. About one in nine Connecticut children lives in poverty, and only four states have a higher rate of long-term unemployment. Simply put, our lead has slipped, and our people are suffering.

Some argue Connecticut is too expensive a place to do business; our labor costs and taxes are just too high. We must lower these costs, they say, or more jobs will leave. But labor costs are people’s salaries, and taxes fund our schools, pave our roads, and run our trains-these are the basis of our economy, and of our quality of life. Here, making Connecticut cheaper means making Connecticut poorer.

There is a better way. The problem is not that businesses see Connecticut as high cost, but that they think it is not worth that cost. Porsche is a high-cost car company, but consumers think their cars are worth the price. High cost doesn’t have to mean “not competitive,” just as low cost often doesn’t mean jobs: Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina, all low-cost states, suffer 10% unemployment or higher. What matters is value–are you worth what you charge?

Certainly, we should tackle high energy and healthcare costs, and make sure government spending is efficient and accountable, but labor costs and taxes are a different matter. Connecticut succeeded because we had a first-class workforce linked to global markets by rivers, roads, and rail. Cutting salaries, education, and transportation would destroy the foundation of our success.

Rather than shooting for cheaper and poorer, let’s aim for better and richer. Let’s make Connecticut worth the price once again. The advantages that made us a thoroughbred economy remain: Connecticut is still close to global markets like New York and still has a highly trained workforce.

Now is the time to make full use of these strengths again. We have to modernize our transportation network–Metro North runs slower from New Haven to New York than it did in the 1960s. And we have to upgrade our workers’ skills so that we can offer businesses the employees they need, so that entrepreneurs start businesses here in Connecticut. In short, we have to make investments in Connecticut people, on Connecticut soil.

Doing this well will require increasing our capacity to create and execute job creation strategies. Under Governors O’Neill and Weicker, Connecticut’s planning apparatus was a national model, but it shriveled under Governors Rowland and Rell. We need more staff at the Office of Policy and Management whose job is to carry out long-term plans and ensure state resources are deployed strategically. If Connecticut is to reverse course, we must have a strong crew to steer it.

The bottom line is simple: if we prefer better and richer to cheaper and poorer, we must make investments in our people, on our soil-the sort of investments that carried Connecticut to the head of the pack in the first place. To execute this strategy, we must boost the state’s planning capacity, to make sure everyone is rowing together. Money is short and time is of the essence; we must make maximum use of both.