As the sun sets on the most recent legislative session, now is as an ideal time to take stock of where we are as a state and where we are going. When the partisan fog of political conflict descends, it is too easy to fall into sloganeering and become blind to the other side of the issues. In so doing we lose track of the key point.
No matter whether you are a progressive or a conservative; someone who believes in the strong role of government or someone who believes more strictly in markets, it’s hard to contend that the state’s current direction is a good one.
We repeat the same budget tactics again and again, such as raising taxes, and yet job growth remains elusive. This session was another missed opportunity to explore alternative paths. We treaded water at best.
To be sure, our fiscal challenges are made of harder stuff than the critics of the Democratic majority and the governor suggest. Connecticut has a yearly budget of $20 billion. Going into this session, the legislature needed to close a gap of roughly $1.5 billion per year.
The Republicans’ proposed budget showed just how great a challenge we faced. Their plan was to go to state employees seeking more concessions. But unless the Republicans were planning a brute force, Darth Vader, approach (I have altered our arrangement, pray I don’t alter it further.), state employees were unlikely to give in. With that distraction out of the way, it became clear that either some revenue needed to be raised or the cuts would become draconian.
Of course, comments in the blogosphere make it seem as if the cuts could just fall out of the sky. In reality if they do they will fall on those least able to handle them.
Connecticut’s state government performs functions that society needs. So that left raising taxes as the option. Raising taxes on the top 1 percent of taxpayers by .3 percent does not seem likely to change the world much for those taxed.
What is troubling is the sense that this budget was thrown together at the absolutely last minute. No one doubts that business interests have a tendency to cry wolf when asked to pay more in taxes. But unlike the bored boy who was stuck on wolf patrol, business actually can leave. Thus the data-processing tax in particular seems foolish. Yet even worse than some aspects of the final product is the path taken to get to the final outcome.
Those left of center need to start with a bottom-line reality. For progressives to be successful, we need people to trust government. In 2014 Gov. Malloy ran on the firm pledge that he would not raise taxes. That pledge has been broken. And it was broken in the context of some nimble maneuvering to circumvent the spending cap.
It’s not that the cap is a great idea or that the arguments against it are necessarily weak. But avoiding the cap sends a message to the people that their wishes were not respected. And for what? This week’s budget bill once again does little more than continue the status quo. Once taxes were to be raised and the spending cap ignored, was it not possible to achieve any meaningful breakthroughs?
Consider the car tax. The legislature re-calibrated it with an eye toward providing greater fairness to those in cities with high mill rates. But why not eliminate the car tax altogether? Ending the car tax, while finding increases to pay for that elimination, would be much more popular than capping the car tax, and eliminating a middle class tax credit to pay for it. Frankly, the state government doesn’t look good coming back every two years for new taxes because it cannot fund the budget the way it is. The problem is that to maintain the status quo required losing trust.
Take an example where progressives required the trust of public to pass something this session and didn’t get it — the effort to put a tax on low-wage-paying employers. The point here is not the merits of the bill, but the reality that for such a tax plan to succeed voters must believe government when it makes predictions about the economic consequences of certain policies. Yet when the same people make predictions about the state budget during a campaign and then retreat from them almost as soon as they are elected, it becomes very difficult to expect voters to believe predictions about what might happen in the private sector.
Trust matters immensely. This is where the campaign finance controversies that arose near the end of session matter most and in a particularly interesting way. Of the 66 Democrats in the legislature who qualified for public financing and used mail, over half used the preferred vendor CCM. Yet among the nine Democrats who voted against the recent budget and used mail, only two used CCM exclusively. The independence shown in campaign decisions showed up later in budget decisions.
Breaking your word to do big things might sometimes pass muster: tax increases to build a much better school, tolls to fund roads that would otherwise not happen. These are sale-able. People will pay for new quality. They do so all the time for consumer products. But instead we got a session where we merely preserved a slowly sinking status quo, and progressives had to break our word to do it.
We lost in other ways too. The state moved toward greater reliance on gambling with Keno and potential casino expansion. We are more dependent on smoking to produce revenue. (Connecticut is among the worst at using our smoking money to battle smoking.) The legislature had to struggle mightily to do the same and failed even to consider big ideas such as marijuana legalization, which would have provided similar revenue to either Keno or the smoking tax increase.
In almost everything the legislature did this session the consistent theme seemed to be: How can we keep everything as close to the same as possible?
Apparently, the hope inside the Capitol remains that our current state of affairs is temporary and that there will be time for new ideas and programs when things are better. But the risk is that this is the new normal and that failure to adapt will see our state slowly go under. While there might have been strong reasons this session to protect what we already do, unless we become bolder in our thinking next session and the one after that, we won’t be able to stay afloat.
To make government work better we have to keep faith with the people and to do that we have to be better about keeping our word. That more than anything else is where this session failed.
Jason Paul was a Democratic candidate for State Representative in the 48th district in 2014.