Democrats in Washington aren’t the only ones trying to reclaim the spotlight after six years in the ideological wilderness. Democrats in Hartford have put forward a budget that strongly advances the classic Democratic value of equality, and their efforts should remind Democrats nationwide not to run away from what they believe.
It is hard to believe that a fiscal budget could ever be so influential or so indicative of political discourse, but in our adopted state, the budget fight will turn depending on whether Democrats in the Legislature have the fortitude to stand behind their progressive ideals. In a nutshell, Connecticut Democrats have proposed restructuring the state’s tax system into a fairer, more progressive one by re-evaluating the income tax structure.
The plan is simple — it lowers taxes on the middle and lower classes, provides for improved services and raises other taxes to cover the difference. Democrats want to lower the income tax rates for those making less than $150,000 per year, double the property tax credit and enact a 20 percent refundable state-earned income tax credit, or EITC, for working families making less than $35,000 per year. Together, 88 percent of all taxpayers in the state of Connecticut will see an income tax cut.
Democrats propose to pay for these tax cuts and new spending in a fiscally responsible way — a concept not seen at the federal level for quite some time. As part of the move toward a progressive income tax, individuals making more than $150,000 will see their income tax rates rise. Connecticut will also join other states in collecting tax on Internet sales and will raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes by 49 cents. These new taxes would also pay for increased spending in crucial areas like health care, education and the environment.
While new spending, particularly in health care, is worthwhile, it is the bold move toward progressive taxation that gives me hope. Before, Democrats would have been scared to propose this kind of overhaul for fear of being labeled “tax-and-spend liberals.” What Democrats have come to realize, especially in Connecticut, where they hold a veto-proof majority in the legislature, is that people respond to the arguments for progressive taxation and share the values behind it.
Progressive taxation aims to remedy the growing, troubling and anti-democratic gap between the rich and the poor, which in Connecticut is the nation’s largest. Progressive taxation works because while the poor should not be given a free ride, the rich should pay their fair share. In a society as wealthy as ours, we must be willing, in the name of equality and justice, to take care of those who are less fortunate. Only then can we ensure that there is true freedom of opportunity, that those who work hard can achieve, and that no one remains shackled by the restraints of economic depravation.
But while we have a responsibility to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves, Democrats are moving away from the expensive and ineffective programs of old and focusing on those like the EITC that just make sense. Started by President Ford and expanded upon by presidents Reagan and Clinton, the EITC is the single most effective anti-poverty measure ever passed on the federal level. Instead of creating a welfare program, EITC works because parents know better than anyone what they should spend their money on, and because rewarding work leads to economic empowerment that can break the cycle of poverty. The EITC has been credited with lifting millions of children out of poverty, copied by over 20 states nationwide and trumpeted by Democrats and Republicans alike. EITC is a crucial part of any progressive tax system — it is not enough simply to ensure that the rich pay a greater share at the top if the poor are still languishing at the bottom.
With this move by the Democrats to push for progressive taxation and to embrace EITC, we see state leaders moving back to the Democratic values of equality that mandate our improving the quality of life for all citizens. Democrats should not be afraid to tell American voters that they will attack issues of poverty, health care and education — because we should — and that we will pay for those efforts fairly, because we must. It is time that the Democratic Party reclaim an agenda based on securing equality of opportunity for all. The Democrats here in Connecticut are well on their way.
Ben Shaffer is a sophomore in Berkeley College. He is campaigns coordinator for the College Democrats.