We have elections now without debates. I don’t mean formal debates; we still have those. I mean elections end and we know less at the finish than we did at the start. TV ads limn candidates’ hardscrabble childhoods or current happy home lives, leaving us to infer their actual views from the subtext of their alleged lives.
America thus faces three mortal threats — the slow death of our middle class, the near death of our democracy and the global apocalypse of climate change — all in dire need of explanation.
Connecticut’s problems aren’t of the scale or complexity of a dying planet. A real debate in the last election could have shed light on them. Instead we got a slugfest over whether Bob Stefanowski resembles Donald Trump more than Ned Lamont resembles Dannel Malloy, a debate Lamont finally won.
Absent debate, fixable problems can seem unfixable — mysterious even. Ignorance breeds fear propagandists eagerly exploit; Connecticut’s own businesses dampen its business climate, depicting the state in a death grip it can only loosen by cutting their taxes.
Lamont may be the ideal leader to lift us out of our funk. His core strengths include an innate optimism well suited to the task. If not tricked by our fiscal crisis into thinking small, he can do great things.
In my life, our state has never been so well positioned to do great things, but our civic discourse is so muddied, few see it. Lamont must help us see the opportunity. It derives of many factors, not all of them obvious.
We’re one of just 14 states with a Democratic governor, senate and house, so partisan gridlock is impossible. A wave of new legislators brings an energy and idealism the capitol hasn’t seen in ages. Even our sour public mood may work to our advantage as change-hungry voters stand ready to punish resisters of reform.
The best news is we’re dead, flat broke. For years we’ve taxed and borrowed to minister to victims of broken systems we refuse to fix. The wise path out of fiscal crisis is reform. In a buoyant first address to the General Assembly, Lamont was sensible of his opportunity to “reinvent Connecticut, to think big and act boldly.”
Some thoughts as to how he might realize his vision:
1. Lamont can make history by enacting America’s first health care public option. In last year’s battle of the budget, all talk was of pensions, not a whisper of health care. Yet it’s our biggest outlay; 40 percent bigger than pensions. We agonized a year over finances while ignoring the worst drain on them. How come?
The simple answer is that the health insurance industry hates the public option. But for 40 years it has tried and failed to rein in costs. Countless studies and our own experience prove that short of a public option, savings are a mirage.
As state comptroller in 1991, I proposed the first– and also last– public option to pass a legislative chamber in America. (Such is the industry’s power.) The idea was simple. Get all state and municipal employees and retiree into one pool. Let small businesses, non-profits and all self-employed who want to buy in do so. Business savings approached 25 percent by my analysis; 18 percent in a later national study. State costs tumble too; at first due just to lower per capita overhead and greater market clout.
Barack Obama campaigned on the public option in 2008, as did Dannel Malloy in 2010. Both later reneged: Obama in secret; Malloy, to his sort of credit, in public aside industry bigwigs. Each thus signed his own fiscal death warrant. Lamont says he won’t throw away his shot or be defined by a fiscal crisis. The only honorable way out of that crisis is to achieve major health care savings the only way we can.
2. Lamont can make good on our unkept promise of equal educational opportunity for every child. As a matter of law, that means equalizing education funding, which as a practical matter means comprehensive property tax reform.
Property tax reform is key to solving many problems, including economic and urban development. Lamont knows for our state to work our cities must work. He has good ideas for helping them: better schools, revitalized downtowns, more buses and trains. But there’ll be no urban renaissance without property tax reform.
Connecticut pays the lowest percent of local education costs of any state, save for a couple in the deep south. It’s why the property tax must raise more money than income and sales taxes combined, driving jobs from big cities and sprawl in small towns that let in every strip mall just to afford math teachers. Sprawl is the enemy of mass transit systems that are the cities’ vital arteries. The cycle must be broken. We can phase in funding, but we must codify our commitment now.
3. Chuck our failed economic development model based on bribing big business to come or stay here. Amazon may commission a fourth headquarters, but it won’t be in Hartford. GE would rather die in Boston and doesn’t pay taxes anyway. Quit the race to the bottom. Bet big on a brand-new model, one that truly nurtures the small businesses that get so much lip service but so little real service.
Small businesses create 70 percent of all new jobs, but their overall share is lower, in part because their mortality rate is so high. We can cut their costs, starting with health care and property taxes. (They pay the most for health care and more in property taxes than any other tax.) We can put all loans, grants and tax credits in one agency that targets our scarce resources to those that can’t otherwise access credit and are located in cities or on mass transit lines.
We must go small and go green. When Malloy wasn’t wooing big business, he was wasting precious time on natural gas pipelines that will never be built. The time for ‘bridge technologies’ has passed. What money we have must go to weatherization, conservation, distributed generation, local agriculture and a solar industry growing despite our indifference and outright resistance. Our model must be a sustainable economy based on conservation and renewable energy. No other model will work.
4. Lamont and legislative leaders should take a page from Nancy Pelosi’s book and make fighting public corruption the order of the day. Some history: in the `70s, most ‘post-Watergate’ reforms were enacted at the state, not federal level, from freedom of information, ethics and elections commissions to child advocate and utility consumer counsel offices.
Ella Grasso was a leader of that movement. No state did more to restructure and reform government. In the 2000s, our second woman governor, Jodi Rell, leaned hard on Democrats to pass sweeping campaign finance reform. I thank them both.
But it turns out reform is even harder to preserve than enact. Our government’s now the least open it’s been in 50 years. Malloy’s first budget was forged in secrecy befitting a papal election. The price he and we paid for his barring that door is beyond evaluation.
Corruption is our biggest problem because it’s the one that keeps all the others from getting solved. Every poll that asks says voters care more about it than any other issue. Because we don’t do forensic audits, they don’t even know its true cost. Safe to say if they find out, they’ll care even more.
To me the striking thing about these ideas is how obvious they seem. All belong at the center of debate. When elections end the real debate begins, but often behind closed doors. Lamont must take it public. I think he’s the right man for the job. He exudes decency and integrity. So do the people of Connecticut. If he puts the right blueprint before them, they’ll help him bring it home.
Let the debates begin.
Bill Curry is the former Connecticut Comptroller and a former advisor to President Bill Clinton.