As a teacher of history, I often hear that “history will judge.” My students know the legend of the Roman Emperor Nero, who set fire to his capital city and played his fiddle unconcerned as he watched it burn around him. Gov. Ned Lamont is on the verge of earning a similarly unflattering reputation.
The two-year budget that Lamont unveiled in January appears magnanimous on the surface. Shiny pennies in the form of income tax cuts are thrown from the Capitol building to all the residents of the state. These cuts will cost the state $450 million per year. But their impact will hardly be momentous. Individual residents will save a mere $300-600 dollars.
Certainly, lower income families will benefit; the extra money clearly will help those who are living paycheck to paycheck in a state with the worst inequality in the country. But what about Fairfield County’s multi-millionaires? An extra $300 buys a nice lunch at a restaurant in New York City. But will this stimulate Connecticut’s economy? And will this be what the people of Connecticut remember about Lamont in years to come? Probably not, because these tax cuts result in inadequate funding of —even cuts to—K-12 and public higher education.
Because of the spending cap, we aren’t supposed to touch the $3 billion surplus. So after $450 million in the governor’s tax income giveaways, only $57 million are left to pay for everything else in the budget. Apparently, Governor Lamont has decided that the popularity he may gain from tax cuts is more important than ensuring a brighter future for Connecticut’s children and young people and is preferable to contributing to business success and the economic strength of the state.
What happens when our elected leaders prioritize popularity over people? I can give an example from what I know best, the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities. Under the governor’s budget it has been estimated that the system will have to lay off 600-800 faculty and staff, close programs, cut courses, and increase class sizes just to make ends meet.
Even that wouldn’t be enough to close the gap: tuition could be raised by 10% each year for the next three years —an increase never seen before in our state. All of this will have a devastating impact. Many students will not be able to afford to go to college or university. Those who do manage to attend will find hollowed out institutions, stripped of the support students need to complete their degrees. A generation of Connecticut working- and middle-class young people will be denied the higher salaries, health, and happiness that higher education is proven to deliver. And once the destruction of the system starts, there is no ending it. Declining enrollments will lead to further cuts and shrinking opportunities.
This is especially devastating now, when students have suffered so much educationally and emotionally under the virtual learning conditions of the pandemic. Now, more than ever, they need additional support and faculty attention, not less. It is uncertain that this generation of students will be able to overcome these obstacles without a stronger and better-funded education system.
Moreover, Governor Lamont’s short-term popularity grab also does not consider the future economic well-being of most people in our state. Every day we hear cries of workforce shortages in key industries that require employees with education and training. There is a desperate need for teachers, nurses, engineers. But this workforce is trained in our public colleges and universities. Our students are Connecticut residents, almost 90% of whom stay in the state. Without an adequately funded public higher education system, this skilled workforce will never grow to meet the need. Connecticut businesses will not be able compete with those in other states with stronger educational systems. Why did Lego, like so many other big companies, leave Connecticut and move to Massachusetts? They left in search of a better trained workforce in a state with a superior public education system.
We ask that legislators help Governor Lamont rethink this budget. He must put Connecticut’s future first, before his own popularity. He must invest in public education so that our young people can recover from a devastating pandemic and so our businesses can be competitive.
And Governor Lamont should remember that history not only judges, it also does not forget. He could build a legacy as the “Education Governor,” not the education destroyer. Rome does not have to burn in 21st-century Connecticut. But Governor Lamont must act before it is too late.
Louise Williams is President of the Connecticut State University chapter of the American Association of University Professors.