Breidbart: Budget touts regionalism

Believe it or not, Sarah Palin could have been governor of Connecticut.

She told the Associated Press on Thursday that she had aspirations of moving to the Nutmeg State after college to become a sports reporter for ESPN. In fact, she named her oldest daughter after the Connecticut town where the cable network has its main studios — Bristol.

So as Connecticut politicians yell and scream about the finer points of the budget Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed on Wednesday, they might want to breathe a sigh of relief that Palin had no part in the process (on a state or federal level).

That’s not to say that their yelling and screaming is completely unwarranted. Keeping to her promise that she would not increase statewide taxes, Rell’s plan slashes more than 800 state jobs and eliminates or consolidates 23 agencies. It also commits the state to spending its entire “rainy day” fund of $1.4 billion.

But for all the attention that is going to her budget cuts and how they may alienate some interest groups, it is the few areas in which she has committed to spending that probably deserve more focus.

Regionalism, the oft-cited approach to urban-suburban governing alliances that seems perfectly designed for a small but densely populated state, is one of those areas. The model is based on efficiency of scale: Spreading resources more effectively uses taxpayer money and limits overlapping operations.

Rell, flexing some progressive muscle, gave significant attention to regionalism in her budget speech Wednesday, calling out Connecticut politicians for their vague use of the catchword.

“It’s time regionalism was more than just something we talk about,” she said. “It’s time for it to be a reality.”

But for this to be a reality, the state’s municipal leaders have to do their part.

Rell is actually vouching for a $50 million budget increase to bring cities and towns together. With the money, she wants to create a $40 million Regional Incentive Grant to help “offset capital infrastructure costs of regionalized services.” This can include anything from tax collection to highway maintenance to police cooperation.

The other $10 million would be used in a Municipal Capital Expenditure Purchase Grant program to assist “municipal cooperate purchases of equipment.”

The summary also contains ways by which she would relieve municipalities of any institutional impediments, such as local charters, to making regional negotiations a reality.

Rell is moving her team to a zone defense.

Maybe this explains her administration’s commitment to supporting municipal well-being through her budget. Considering all of the antagonism between the administration and city mayors in the past, on Wednesday the mayors caught a good break — or at least a better-than-expected one.

As it stands, major municipal grants remain largely intact after Rell’s cuts. The PILOT program is expected to be funded at the same rate it has been in past years (which is not to say that the rate has been good). Education Cost Sharing grants for urban school districts are projected to be funded at the same level for the next two years. New Haven’s total state aid is expected to drop by only 0.1 percent over that time.

In a statement released Wednesday, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. credited the Rell administration for its commitment to viewing cities as part of the solution rather than as part of the problem.

“This budget … while not fully funding all of the City’s objectives, is a good first step in the process to foster a solid working relationship that achieves our collective goal,” the mayor said.

“Our collective goal” seems to be shifting. And DeStefano needs to come in off the bench.

In order to ease financial tension and build stronger social services, regionalism needs to become a focus of future planning. It favors better organization of school districts, new possibilities in public health care, and a broader, stronger tax base. The 169 municipalities of the state need to get away from a strictly “home rule” mentality. By turning a crisis into an opportunity, the mayors have a chance to set the tone.

Like Rell might say if she ever decides to do SportsCenter: “They could go all the way.”

Sam Breidbart is a sophomore in Branford College. His column runs alternate Fridays.

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