To close observers of state politics, Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget proposal was no surprise. More cuts in vital services and investments, but no tax increases for the wealthy. The General Assembly will undoubtedly produce a rather different document, but for now the governor’s budget is still the only game in town. However, progressives might look to Washington for inspiration.
Not to the White House, of course, but to the Congress. Each year, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) releases the People’s Budget, a socially just and fiscally sound blueprint for the federal government. The CPC shows that it’s truly possible to balance the books while fully funding much needed progressive programs.
The new Progressive Caucus in the state House (comprising half the Democratic membership of the chamber) is the obvious starting point for a parallel effort in Hartford. It’s a daunting task to put together a budget in a state with such tangled fiscal obligations. But it’s precisely that complexity that demands a realistic alternative.
Basic economics tells us that austerity — or the Lamont-branded “debt diet” — does not work. In the short term, government spending cuts take money out of the economy, begetting paltry growth and weaker tax receipts, setting up a vicious cycle of more spending cuts in a never-ending attempt to balance the budget. In the long run, underinvesting in education, health, infrastructure and other priorities robs us of future opportunities for growth and innovation. We’ve already seen the hollowing out of state agencies take its toll on Connecticut residents.
By far the better and more sustainable way to balance the budget is to raise taxes on the rich. Connecticut’s wealthiest can clearly afford to pay more into state coffers. The Progressive Caucus has already come out with a smart set of proposals to raise both the rate on the highest income bracket and on capital gains. The latter is especially crucial, as that’s how the ultra-wealthy make the bulk of their money. If the Progressive Caucus uses its leverage as a bloc, and the governor decides that he’s truly open to all ideas, there is hope for fair taxation’s inclusion in the final document. It would be fiscally and generationally irresponsible to leave that much revenue on the table year after year.
The linchpin of any People’s Budget will be undoing the harm of the 2017 budget deal that imposed a variety of draconian and reckless restrictions on state spending. Most egregiously, the “bond lock” hands over control of spending levels to Wall Street bondholders for five years, by writing the fiscal caps into bond covenants. Connecticut Voices for Children has been vocal about the dangers of this provision from the beginning, and recently issued a series of clever, if timely, policy options to delicately extract ourselves from this artificial crisis.
There are certainly some good things included in the governor’s budget. A $15 minimum wage and paid family and medical leave are both moral and economic imperatives for present and future people of Connecticut. But these policies cannot deliver economic growth on their own. After nearly a decade of austerity, we need the engine of public investment to put our state back on track.
I hope the bill that emerges from the legislature comes to resemble a People’s Budget. But in future, progressive ideas shouldn’t just be tacked on after the fact; they should be present at the very creation.
Andy Gottlieb is a Democrat from Guilford and former candidate for state Senate in the 12th District.
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