Prompted by poses struck by candidates for the Republican nomination for governor, the Hartford Business Journal asked its readers the other day: “Can Connecticut realistically eliminate the state income tax and produce a balanced state budget?” Two-thirds of the readers who responded answered no.
Since the income tax produces about half state government’s revenue, of course eliminating it isn’t realistic. A better question would have been whether it is realistic even to hope that state government might reduce spending by any amount, improve efficiency, and stop raising taxes.
Theoretically is possible, despite the 10-percent budget deficit already predicted for next year. But politically?
First Connecticut would need a governor and majority in the General Assembly willing to confront the state and municipal employee unions, whose members receive about half state government’s revenue. Those union members are the most politically active people in the state. The teacher unions particularly are the dominant political force in nearly every town.
Some of the Republican candidates for governor have declared themselves ready to confront the state employee unions over their pensions, which remain grossly underfunded. But the teachers?
It doesn’t matter that during three decades Connecticut has increased local education spending by tens of billions of dollars only to establish that spending has no correlation with student performance and that student performance correlates only with parenting. For many parents themselves are not willing to accept this, since it would shift to them the responsibility that is misplaced with schools. No candidate for governor or state legislator dares to go near this issue. So school spending will remain a black hole, absorbing ever-more money even as enrollment keeps declining. Schools likely will swallow up any money saved elsewhere in government.
For 60 years Connecticut has had policies purportedly intended to reverse the decline of its cities. Three times in those years state policy has relocated downtown Hartford, first to Constitution Plaza, then to the Hartford Civic Center, and lately to the Connecticut Convention Center. Yet now the city is bankrupt anyway, able to operate only because of state government’s assumption of its half-billion dollars in long-term debt. In most of Connecticut’s cities demographics, violence, schools, and general living conditions have only worsened.
All this is closely linked with welfare policy’s perpetuating and increasing dependence instead of producing self-sufficiency.
The money wasted by these failures is almost beyond calculation and they cry out for audits, the first step toward correction. But such audits have not yet even been proposed by anyone in authority, for these failures have spawned big and politically influential businesses.
Connecticut’s Democratic Party is one of the big businesses drawing sustenance from the long failure of educational, urban, and welfare policies. While the party’s current leader, Governor Malloy, is the most unpopular governor in the country, the two candidates for the party’s nomination to succeed him have pledged to continue his policies and not disturb any of government’s dependents.
Only something very different can have a chance of saving the state. But that will require a candidate for governor who inspires and mobilizes the people who have been paying for failure. Belonging to no special interest, each of these people will have to stand up seemingly alone. Do they have enough political courage?
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.