For decades, going back at least to the state Supreme Court’s decision in the school financing case of Horton v. Meskill in 1977, the big thinkers in Connecticut’s public life and the virtue signalers in the General Assembly have complained that municipal property taxes are too high. As a result since then state government has appropriated billions of dollars in the name of reducing property taxes.
State government even enacted a law requiring municipalities to note on their property tax bills how much higher the local property tax rate might be without state government’s financial aid.
But property taxes have never been relieved. According to the Connecticut Mirror, this week the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities reported that about half of the state’s 169 municipalities raised taxes this year, most of them by more than the official inflation rate of 1.6 percent, and in just the last two years total annual municipal property taxes have increased by about 4.5 percent percent to $11 billion, slightly exceeding revenue from the state income tax.
So what’s the problem?
It’s mainly that municipal costs, like state government’s, keep outrunning revenues, because no matter how much is appropriated, it is illegal, nearly illegal, or politically impractical to control costs, particularly the biggest costs, labor costs. Under the state’s system of collective bargaining and binding arbitration of government employee union contracts, municipal contract awards are based in large part on an arbiter’s judgment of a municipality’s ability to pay. So obtaining more state aid does a municipality little practical good, since the aid can be construed as increasing the municipality’s ability to pay.
Indeed, Connecticut actually has a law forbidding municipalities from reducing their school budgets even if student enrollment declines. Since school budgets constitute two-thirds to three-quarters of municipal expense, the law aims to prohibit property tax relief by requiring savings in education to be diverted from taxpayers to school employees, most of whom are unionized teachers.
That is, just as “aid to education” is a euphemism for increasing the compensation of school employees, “property tax relief” is a euphemism for increasing the compensation of municipal employees generally.
It’s like imperial Rome. The emperor knew he might get away with almost anything as long as his legions were happy with their compensation. Connecticut’s unionized state and municipal government employees are the core of the state’s Democratic Party and the legions of its regime. Any tax relief might prompt them to revolt, forcing the party to search for new euphemisms for public policy.
“Property tax relief” isn’t Connecticut’s only longstanding policy failure. Education itself becomes remedial as soon as first grade, as many children begin school unprepared even for kindergarten. As a teacher in New Britain told the Hartford Courant the other day: “When children start in more affluent towns they know shapes, colors, and numbers. They can count. Many of our kids don’t even know how to write their own name or hold a pencil.”
It gets worse. For a long time most Connecticut students have failed to master high school math or English by graduation. Meanwhile the state Department of Children and Families has failed to escape federal court supervision for 27 years.
But who in authority cares about perpetual failure as long as the legions are content with their compensation?