Best of 2019: Debunking Connecticut’s enduring tax myth
Note: This story was originally published on November 21, 2019.
It was one of the talking points casually employed last week by Patrick Sasser, a leader of the No Tolls CT movement: Why should anyone believe a suggestion by Gov. Ned Lamont that the tolls he was seeking could be temporary, when that was how the income tax was sold in 1991?
Carol Platt Liebau, the president of the conservative Yankee Institute, made the same argument in a statement published on Nov. 7: “No sensible person can believe the claim that these tolls would be temporary, given Connecticut’s long history of ‘temporary’ taxes that have turned out to be permanent — including the state income tax.”
The income-tax-as-temporary complaint has taken root among Republicans in recent years and blossomed on Twitter and Facebook. It was repeated by two Republican gubernatorial candidates in 2018 — Bob Stefanowski and Timothy Herbst — and casually mentioned in an interview this year by the House Republican leader, Themis Klarides.
There is only one problem. It is a myth.
“When I sign this budget Connecticut will be closing the book on its past, and it’ll be facing toward the future.”
Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., 1991
The public record is unambiguous. On Feb. 13, 1991, Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. told a joint session of the General Assembly of his intention to make sweeping and permanent changes to Connecticut’s tax system — sharply cutting the sales, corporations and investment income taxes and imposing a tax on wages.
Six months later, after three budget vetoes, the legislature acceded to Weicker’s wishes by adopting a tax package different from the original proposal, but still a top-to-bottom overhaul of the tax code.
There was no sunset provision striking it from the books after five years, as Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, recently said he once believed.
In fact, an element of the final debate in the House was that there would be no going back once the new revenue source was on the books. “It lets the genie out of the bottle,” said Rep. J. Peter Fusscas, a Republican from Marlborough. “Once it’s out, it ain’t never going back in.”
As he prepared to sign the budget, Weicker spoke of it as the foundation for the future, not a stopgap: “When I sign this budget Connecticut will be closing the book on its past, and it’ll be facing toward the future.”
So, how did the narrative change?
“This is a really interesting question,” said Emily Thorson, a Syracuse University political scientist who has written articles about misinformation in politics and is currently writing a book on the subject.
Thorson said falsehoods about policies, as opposed to people, have their own dynamic. They can slip into public consciousness over time, especially when they take root outside political campaigns, where candidates are challenged by opponents and fact-checked by journalists.
“With policy perceptions, it’s not about what a candidate did or didn’t do,” Thorson said. “Misconceptions about a particular policy, these are pretty common.”
Thorson said examples include the perception that U.S. foreign aid consumes a significant piece of the federal budget. (One poll found a belief it constitutes 25%, not the actual one percent.) Or that benefits under a federal welfare program, TANF, can be collected indefinitely. (TANF, an acronym for temporary assistant for needy families, limits how long recipients can get aid.)
“With policy perceptions, it’s not about what a candidate did or didn’t do. Misconceptions about a particular policy, these are pretty common.”
Political Scientist Emily Thorson
When a public policy no longer is in the news, it is especially vulnerable to misinformation. The proponents move on, memories fade, and details get simplified or twisted.
Thorson said this can happen without malicious intent.
“They are often the result of people trying to piece together information in a fragmented media environment,” she said.
It’s been 28 years since Connecticut adopted a tax on wages, and the turnover in the General Assembly is nearly complete: 100% in the Senate (though three current senators were House members in 1991), and 97% in the House.
Connecticut does have a history of taxes proposed as temporary, but that never quite go away. A surcharge on the corporations tax was imposed in 1989 with the expectation it would disappear in two years. It is still around.
Republicans say the myth of a temporary income tax took root because it reflects something real: a mistrust in government, particularly on issues of taxes and finance.
“The bottom line is people don’t trust government,” said Rep. Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. “I think that’s what we need to recognize.”
“People feel government has tricked them so many times. They are right to feel that way,” said Joe Markley, a former state senator who was the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018. “The most temporary thing about the income tax were the low rates.”
Weicker’s original proposal was to impose a 6% income tax and cut the 8% sales tax to 4.25%.
The version adopted by the General Assembly on Aug. 21, 1991 imposed a 4.5% income tax and cut the sales tax to 6%. The 13.8% corporate tax was lowered to 10.5% over two years. Income from capital gains, dividends and interest, which had been taxed between 7% and 14%, were treated as regular income, taxed at 4.5%.
Income tax rates now range from 3% to 6.99%. The sales tax is 6.35%, with an additional percentage point on restaurant food and other prepared meals that was adopted in 2019.
Markley is a passionate Weicker critic who helped his friend, former state Sen. Tom Scott, organize a massive anti-income tax protest at the State Capitol after withholding began in 1991. But he is a character witness for Weicker and the other income-tax supporters on the question of whether the tax ever was pitched as temporary.
“This is the one sin they didn’t commit,” Markley said.
Markley said he sometimes corrects people on Facebook when they repeat the falsehood.
Not everyone is easily persuaded.
“This is the one sin they didn’t commit.”
Former Republican Senator Joe Markley
France, the state representative from Ledyard who once believed the income tax was passed with a sunset provision, reacted angrily in May 2018 when this reporter corrected him.
“I was taken aback,” he said this week.
But he checked the legislation, found no sunset provision and now accepts it never was intended to be temporary. France said he cannot recall who first suggested otherwise; it was just part of the conversation in his political circles.
Sasser, the tolls opponent, said he could not recall how he came to believe the income tax was meant to be temporary and was surprised to learn the story was false. Liebau, of the Yankee Institute, did not return a call for comment.
Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, who was in his second term when he voted for the income tax, said the persistence of the rumor is a sign of the times.
“It’s the age of Trump. It’s the age of ‘fake news.’ People make up narratives that are total fiction,” Godfrey said. “This crap gets out there all over the place, and no one bothers to do their own fact checking.”
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, who voted for the income tax as a House member, said he is stunned every time someone tells him that the income tax was meant to be temporary.
“It’s the age of Trump. It’s the age of ‘fake news.’ This crap gets out there all over the place, and no one bothers to do their own fact checking.”
State Rep. Bob Godfrey
“I keep hearing that all the time,” Looney said. “It’s completely fictitious. Who would work that hard and bleed that much for something that was temporary?”
In 1971, Connecticut adopted an income tax, but repealed it before it ever took effect, one potential source of the confusion today.
But Looney is among those more inclined to think that Republican John G. Rowland’s promise in 1994 to eliminate the income tax once he was elected governor muddied memories. “Maybe some people transformed that into a representation it was supposed to be temporary,” Looney said.
Rowland never submitted a budget that would have eliminated the income tax during his nearly 10 years as governor.
The income tax was revived as an issue in 2018 by Stefanowski, the GOP gubernatorial nominee. The centerpiece of his campaign was the one that helped Rowland 24 years earlier: A claim he could eventually eliminate the tax on wages, now the single largest source of tax revenue in Connecticut.
Stefanowski used to describe the tax as temporary in stump speeches until it was reported as inaccurate by CT Mirror. His campaign manager, Patrick Trueman, said he then looked for news stories supporting Stefanowski’s claim and found none, and Stefanowski dropped the reference in his speeches.
Trueman said Scott, who was an adviser to the campaign, was among those who told Stefanowski the tax was meant to be temporary. “Tom Scott, who was there and quite frankly ought to know better, repeated it again and again and again,” Trueman said.
Scott said Trueman is mistaken. Scott said he never told anyone the tax was proposed as temporary, only that he heard a vague rumor during the long tax fight in 1991 that proponents might try to pick up support by changing it to a temporary tax — something that never happened
“We never tracked down the source,” Scott said. “It was part of the noise.”
Stefanowski said that while he was wrong to fall for the myth that the income tax was intended to be temporary, the man who defeated him has proven that taxpayers have every right to mistrust politicians.
Lamont insisted during the campaign he was opposed to all tolls except on trucks. In February, Lamont reneged on that pledge by proposing a comprehensive system of tolling on all motor vehicles.
“There is a general mistrust of government,” Stefanowski said. “He made it worse.”
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