I remember sitting in my law office eight years ago, morbidly thankful that I had not followed so many of my classmates to Wall Street. Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns would soon be wiped from the face of the earth, and Stamford’s own UBS and RBS would be changed forever. At that time, there was no doubt we had a sense of great calamity or even impending doom. But I do not think that we appreciated then the scale of the permanent economic changes to come, or that change would be so fast and relentless.
Connecticut is not going back to the way it was, and neither is our state budget and the high level of services from state and local government to which we have become accustomed. Connecticut continues to be a state of great strengths; our people are among the most productive and highly educated workers in the nation, and our geography between New York City and Boston is a singular advantage.
We have created more than 85,000 private sector jobs in the last four years, and Connecticut has recovered all of the jobs we lost in the Great Recession. But our competitors in New York and Boston have closed the gap, our core strengths in finance, manufacturing and insurance are heavily pressured, and not a day goes by that one of our 16 Fortune 500 companies and other large employers are tempted by other states and a king’s ransom of tax incentives and forgivable loans.
We must transform ourselves, and seize our opportunity to build a stronger and more stable foundation for our businesses and workers. And this transformation must start, and accelerate, in Hartford. In his budget address, the governor called for deep cuts to state spending, no tax increases, and immediate action to confront our long-term pension obligations head on. The governor is right. It is time to rip the Band-aid off. And to do so, the governor set forth five basic principles that we must adhere to:
First, we must limit our spending to available resources. We must start with a clear recognition of what we can afford to spend, and then build a budget within those limits. That means a real and enforceable spending cap. We’ll need to reduce the state’s workforce by at least 1,000 employees, and reduce many vital services we depend on.
Second, we must take action now on unfunded pensions and long-term obligations. We now make more than $2 billion in payments for pensions and long-term obligations, and that number will soon jump to billions more. The governor must negotiate new contracts with our state employees that fairly recognizes their hard work and all they do to keep us safe and improve our quality of life, but on terms that we can afford.
Third, we must focus on core services. Like the governor, Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey has called for “zero-based” budgeting, in which we build a budget from scratch — a zero-based budget — and then construct a budget for the services we really need and can afford. We can no longer simply spend what we spent last year and through inertia look to spend more.
Fourth, state government must be more accountable. Let the governor and his commissioners and managers manage aggressively to save money where they can, and demonstrate efficient and high quality performance.
Fifth, the budget process itself must change. Majority Democrats must build a budget openly and with Republican input. Republicans, in turn, must negotiate in good faith to come to a budget that all can agree on, and have compromised, to achieve. The state budget does not spend money only on Democratic programs and initiatives, and only in Democratic cities and towns. The state budget is a collection of spending and investments, and even taxes and fees, that are sponsored and supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. Republicans must come to the table ready to compromise, and Republicans must vote for the spending, and a budget, to which they contribute a great deal.
Many of my constituents have contacted me and asked me to have the “courage” to make the difficult decisions the governor has called on us to make. This is not about courage. It does not take courage to lay off a state employee and put his or her family in financial crisis. It does not take courage to reduce services to the developmentally disabled. It does not take courage to close a courthouse. It does not take courage to tell people we cannot help them. These are not nameless, faceless people. They are our friends and neighbors. They are seniors, children, and some who are sick and desperately need our help. All of them need our strongest and fullest commitment. And we must all realize that in our new economic reality, we are going to fall short.
There is no joy, pride or courage in this work. But it is work that must be done, so that Connecticut’s economy can grow and thrive and support the fair, compassionate and responsive state government our families deserve.
State Rep. William Tong is a Democrat whose 147th district includes Stamford and Darien. He is co-chairman of the Commission on Economic Competitiveness and co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee.