Gov. Ned Lamont’s slippage in the polls is not surprising. Former Gov. Dan Malloy, now gainfully employed reforming education in Maine, casts a long shadow, and Lamont’s policy prescriptions — including his budget, approved by the Democrat-dominated General Assembly — do not differ much from Malloy’s in matters of getting and spending.
Some may notice that a new expression, “modernize” and its variants, has made its way into Democrat oratory. Lamont said of his massive sales tax increases, “Look, we’re gonna try and modernize our sales tax structure… In fact, wanna know why sales tax revenues are already up compared to what we had expected. That’s cause of sales tax applying to e-commerce.”
There is nothing “modern” about tax increases in Connecticut. The state has done little else but raise taxes to discharge its repetitive budget deficits. There is no indication so far that this destructive process — raise revenue, spend revenue, incur deficits, raise revenue again — will not continue at an accelerated pace in the Lamont administration. Lamont’s apple did not far from Weicker’s tree. Weicker raised taxes; Malloy raised taxes — twice, cumulatively the largest tax increase of any administration in state history; Lamont has now raised taxes, though he boasts that he has not raised the income tax. In all three instances, tax increases have led to spending increases, which have led to budget deficits, which have led to further tax increases. Qui bono? Who benefits by his process? Surely not taxpayers.
The number one beneficiary is cowardly politicians, because increasing taxes is the least painless way leading to reelection. Spending cuts produce an adverse reaction among those groups, most prominently public employee unions, Democrats depend upon to retain their seats.
Assuming here is anyone left in Connecticut who might recognize real reform if it bit them on the cheek, what might a real reform look like?
Commentator Chris Powell noted some time ago that Connecticut is suffering chiefly from political problems most easily solved by politicians.
The General Assembly has lost control of its budgets, owing mostly to what are called “fixed costs.” Fixed costs are governmental costs that members of Connecticut’s General Assembly refuse to address in biennial budgets, a cost that must be paid on a regular basis and cannot be adjusted through usual legislative means — by, for example, cutting the cost.
Fixed costs comprise an over-large portion of Connecticut’s budgets. Here are some eye-popping figures taken from the Connecticut School Finance Project: “Connecticut’s fixed costs have risen from 35 percent of General Fund expenditures in fiscal year 2000, to 49 percent of General Fund expenditures in fiscal year 2018, an increase of 14 percentage points. Additionally, fixed costs have risen in terms of total dollars, from $5.17 billion in fiscal year 2000, to $9.15 billion in fiscal year 2018. This is a 77 percent increase in the whole-dollar amount of fixed costs.”
The Connecticut General Assembly has surrendered control of half of its budget to auto-pilot, a “77 percent increase in the whole-dollar amount of fixed costs” since 2000, according to figures supplied by Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management and the General Assembly’s Office of Fiscal Analysis.
Now, it is true that little can be done to change the past, which is fixed. But, going forward, these conditions can be adjusted. Told that nothing could be done concerning fixed costs, Powell responded, “Well, unfix them.” Zero based budgeting would nudge legislators toward real reform.
The General Assembly must regain control of its future budgets. It does not help when the legislature pensions off its own constitutional obligations to unelected bodies that decide money issues, such as union management arbitrators or, most recently, a “transportation commission” tasked with deciding toll rates in the future, assuming tolling has a future.
In the future, all contracts involving dollars paid out by the state should be decided by the General Assembly alone; no more negotiations with unions. Never again should a single dollar be appropriated or expended by the General Assembly without a recorded vote in the legislature; no more voice votes on any measure that involves getting and spending. These are real back-to-Bach reforms that will reconstitutionalize state government and reestablish the vital connection between legislative measures and the small “d” democratic will of the people. Under a regimen of this kind, it would not be possible for the General Assembly to assign its own constitutional powers to unelected commissions, the devil in the details of tolling.
There are lots of screaming, bellicose devils in there yet to be exorcised.