Connecticut’s fall to the bottom of almost every ranking, along with the decline of its education system and infrastructure, has been steady, relentless, and all the more distressing because our state is endowed with enormous potential. If there’s one thing we all want, regardless of our politics, it’s to see Connecticut rising — as a place to live, work, and retire — to the top where it surely belongs.
For the legislature, that means agreeing on the seriousness of the realities and working together to change them. Progress in three areas this session is achievable and would make a significant difference.
Rail safety. Metro-North’s recent performance, including fatalities, is unacceptable. Connecticut’s contract with the railroad gives it almost no leverage for demanding a halt to safety and performance failures. Connecticut must identify the most rigorous requirements and sanctions imposed on railroads by other states and use every means to apply them to Metro-North, seeking federal intervention if necessary. It should also revise its investment priorities to put rail infrastructure improvements ahead of new projects.
Education mandate relief. State mandates are dragging the best schools down and keeping struggling schools from improving. The task force created by legislation I introduced last year is developing a mandate relief proposal now. The goal: to allow the best schools to keep improving, and to help all public schools focus on teaching and learning, while making the most efficient use of human and financial resources and saving money in the process.
Reducing state employment costs. While the reasons most often cited for doing this are cutting spending and reducing unfunded liabilities, another is equally valid: protecting the solvency of employee benefit and retirement plans. Other states with precariously unfunded obligations, like Rhode Island and Kentucky, have recognized this, and have worked with active employees to develop solutions. These and others must be assessed for appropriateness here, numbers must be run, and all stakeholders must be involved in crafting a solution.
Because a solution is necessary. Connecticut is burdened with a structural deficit — $2.3 billion for the next biennium – and the country’s second highest unfunded liabilities ratio. With taxpayers stretched to their limits, expanding the tax base is essential. To create the favorable tax structure that can make that happen, the state needs the financial flexibility that comes with reducing its own costs and indebtedness. Only then can it offer a competitive business climate conducive to growth and new jobs and make the infrastructure investments that are fundamental for vibrant commerce and quality of life. The alternative: the state will remain dependent on raising revenues on the existing tax base and face untenable indebtedness, and state employees won’t receive what they’ve been promised.
All that said, can the legislature really get anything done this year? Only old habits, special interests and politics are standing in the way. Put those aside, and 2014 will be the Year of Connecticut Rising. A sight for sore eyes, at last.
State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-143, represents Wilton, Norwalk and Westport. She is Ranking Member of the General Assembly’s Commerce Committee and a member of the Appropriations, Education, and Higher Education committees.