Gov. Dannel Malloy must hate the month of February.
It’s in this shortest and bleakest of months that our governor makes the short walk from his office to the lectern overlooking the Connecticut General Assembly. Once there, he has the unenviable task of detailing the state’s travails in the coming fiscal year, trying as best he can to mask the deeply worrying realities of Connecticut’s finances. After the budget speech, delivered two weeks ago this year, he then spends the following months trying to persuade all sorts of constituencies to accept the latest round of draconian budget cuts.
Over the six years of Malloy’s governorship, negotiating Connecticut’s precarious economy has become only more difficult. This process has destroyed Malloy’s popularity. He now ranks among the three or four least popular governors in the country. First, he fought the teachers’ unions, never an opponent any governor, especially a Democrat, wishes to engage. They have yet to forgive him. Last year, it was the hospitals that earned his ire, and their well-funded lobbies spent months on the attack. This year, as Malloy has proposed quadrupling gun permit fees, it’s gun owners who have the unpleasant honor of repeating their role as his chief adversary.
Municipalities, taxpayers and state services have been progressively squeezed as funding from Hartford dries up and taxes rise. On the face of it, it looks like cities are due to do better under this budget — Waterbury will receive $43 million more in state aid this year than last, and New Haven will receive $19 million. But those are stopgap measures meant to patch up the underlying malaise.
For example, the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, intended to compensate cities for tax-exempt property within their borders, is still vastly underfunded — meant to receive 77 cents for each untaxed dollar, New Haven receives only 44 cents. And Malloy’s proposal to shift over $800 million in teacher retirement costs to municipalities over two years will complicate matters even further. Hartford’s additional $12 million in education aid, for instance, will be more than offset by the $17 million in pension costs they’ll have to pick up. Meanwhile, the root problems associated with Connecticut’s system of property taxes go unaddressed.
Not all of this is Malloy’s fault, of course. The curse of unfunded pension obligations goes back decade; governors before Malloy deserve their fair share of blame for failing to clean up the slow-motion mess before it snowballed into what we have today. And it is previous governors who failed to invest adequately in the infrastructure necessary to make Connecticut competitive in the national market.
But this, a sputtering economy and fiscal despair, is the story of Malloy’s tenure as governor. In brief: In the face of a massive budget crisis, offer various band aids to stop the bleeding. Cut everything that can be cut. Get into a vicious and interminable fight for no particular reason. Wash, rinse, repeat. All the while, Connecticut continues to languish in the very bottom rung of national business-climate rankings, and the outlook on the horizon never gets any better.
At some point, you have to wonder, might Malloy and his budget chief Ben Barnes simply run out of things to cut? Their budget for the coming two years proposes a whopping $700 million in labor savings in the first year, equating to an unthinkable 10 percent reduction in the state workforce. Coming on the back of substantial layoffs over the past six years, it’s approaching the realm of the frankly impossible.
It’s hard to see how this vicious cycle comes to a close. But one thing is clear: Connecticut cannot recover without substantial change, not just in Hartford but indeed in the structure of our economy. Malloy’s proposed “transportation lockbox,” setting aside tens of billions to pay for infrastructure upgrades, represented a substantial step forward but floundered in the General Assembly. Rejuvenating Connecticut will require that and much more, forcing state politicians to think hard about how they can make the state competitive on a national level. Without that, the revenues the state’s coffers sorely need will remain lacking.
It is an enormous task. The past six years, spent extinguishing fires rather than fireproofing for the future, do not lend themselves to the conviction that Connecticut’s leaders have the mental fortitude and political creativity to find workable solutions. One can only hope that will change, on both sides of the aisle, as the state lurches on.
Noah Daponte-Smith is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .