Sunday, August 13, 2006

To The Republicans in Windsor: Tax Reform For Whom?

The title of this talk is “Property Tax Reform for Whom?” I intend to answer this question, but it might be proper to provide a little background information first.

I began writing for a local paper here some 25 years ago – perhaps more. And after I had produced what the Editorial Page Editor of the paper that launched my column perhaps realized were several “not liberal” (if not conservative) pieces that he gleefully printed, he said to me in the tone of a seasoned advisor offering a cautionary word to a promising columnist, “You know, the state is pretty liberal.” Meaning: You’re not gonna get very far convincing people that they should discard the ideological straight-jackets they’ve been wearing all these years, and probably no one else will print you.”

I really didn’t care. I just wanted to mainline a bit of inoffensive contrarian thought into at least one newspaper, and I’ve persisted in this perversity ever since. But in answer to his remark, I said, “Yeah, sure. I wonder why the state is liberal?” Meaning: Maybe there’s something after all to the “junk in junk out” theory. If the media continues to pump liberal junk into the veins of the populous, the people will continue to behave like liberal junkies.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. In mid June the venerable Hartford Courant issued the following earthshaking proclamation:

TO OUR READERS
June 18, 2006
Next Sunday, The Courant will add another experienced political voice and a new dimension to the Other Opinion page: Bill Curry. His column will appear on this page (sic) Sundays. Curry, a lawyer and a Democrat, served a term as state comptroller, was a state senator and was the Democrats' nominee for governor twice and Congress once. He was an adviser to President Bill Clinton from 1995 to 1997. He lives in Farmington.


Big surprise! The Courant inserts into its stable of liberal reporters and columnists yet another liberal columnist; clearly, this was not intended to be a “man bites dog” announcement since all the commentators at the Courant -- save Lawrence Cohen, who is not on the staff of the paper-- are avowed liberals or, the preferred term these days, “progressives.” Don’t be confused by the terminology: The difference between a liberal and a progressive lies in personal energy; a liberal is a tired progressive.

Actually, the Courant pressed two new liberals to its bosom – Paul Bass, an editor and writer for the New Haven Independent, a blogpaper, and Curry – perhaps to replace the departed Michele Jacklin, who left the Courant to assist Mayor John DeStefano in his gubernatorial ambitions. DeStefano, who has been fraternizing with progressives lately, is a sometime contributor to a progressive blogsite called MyLeftNutmeg. Jacklin must have felt very much at home in the DeStefano’s campaign. No round pegs in square holes there.

The question I put to myself on hearing the glad tidings that Curry was to write a column for the Courant was this: What is the “new dimension” Curry is expected to bring to the paper, and how does it differ from the old dimension?

Now, I’ve looked into the matter; I’ve studied it closely, and I’m here to report that -- there is no new dimension. The touted “new dimension” is just an advertising gimmick. But there is a new effort underway to provide what the Courant, John DeStefanop, the new Democrat nominee for governor, Bill Curry, Paul Bass, the entire stable of the paper’s liberal commentariat – including Colin McEnroe, Dennis Horgan, Tom Condon, Frank Harris III, Bessy Reyna, Robert Thorson and others -- call “property tax reform.” The Courant has been blowing up the property tax reform dirigible every since Curry made it a centerpiece of his campaign against former Governor John Rowland.

And on the first Sunday after DeStefano was chosen by Democrats to unseat Jodi Rell, the Courant ran an editorial outlining its marching orders to the troops:

The property tax system and its problems must be the focus of this fall's gubernatorial election. Connecticut will not break out of its slow-growth rut until it tackles the main problem. The two major-party candidates for governor must put forth thorough and credible plans to reform the system. Such reform might include shifting some education spending to other taxes, finding new sources of revenue for municipalities, some form of tax-sharing and other measures.


And the editorial threw down the gauntlet to Governor Rell:

The Republican incumbent also is aware of the problem. Earlier this year, she proposed eliminating the property tax on cars, and paying for it by eliminating the property tax credit on the income tax. Some towns calculated they would lose money on the deal, as would some taxpayers. While there are inequities in the taxing of vehicles, this proposal was not the comprehensive property tax reform that is desperately needed.

Make no mistake: Changing the property tax system will be politically daunting; perhaps a greater challenge than Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. faced when he backed the income tax 15 years ago. But it has to be done. Towns are under pressure to develop every inch of open space, which is hurting the state's vaunted quality of life. Because of school costs, many towns are discouraging the construction of homes for families with children, a most disquieting trend. How can a community be healthy and vibrant without children?

Strong leadership at the top will be needed to lessen the burden of property taxes. Voters must demand that the candidates for governor squarely address this issue.


Odd, isn’t it? Every time the Courant mentions Weicker’s name approvingly – It is invoked among progressives in the hushed tones usually reserved for the faithful praying to the saints – taxes go up.

Under Democrat proposals for property tax reform, the state will increase the amount of money it gives to municipal governments to pay for educational costs. I pause here to mention that the tax burden will fall on state taxpayers, who also happen to be municipal tax payers, a datum sometimes overlooked by Democrats in their haste to be all things to all people.

In the long run, both Democrat candidates for governor proposed replacing the property tax, as an educational revenue funder, with the income tax – which is, as we all know, more progressive. DeStefano, the Hugo Chavez of Connecticut politics, would fund educational spending by dunning the millionaires. Malloy’s plan was more subtle than that: His would decouple property taxes and educational funding. Educational funding would be paid through taxes realized from dedicated funds.

In the short run, the state would cover about 50% of the cost of educational funding, mostly paid out in salaries, up from about 38%. Both plans are said to provide “tax relief” to municipal property taxpayers. But tax relief would only be provided to property taxpayers if the municipalities were to return the difference to them, and Democrat plans do not provide for this contingency. The plans do not say to municipalities, “Look, we (state government) are going to give you 8% more in tax money to defray your educational costs, provided you return it to municipal property taxpayers so they may find relief. That provision is not written in stone in any of the plans I’ve seen. It’s not even penciled in in the fine print.

Why not?

Because the plans do not envision providing tax relief to taxpayers – municipal or state. The best and most efficient way to provide tax relief to taxpayers is to reduce both spending and taxes; this would necessarily involve painful cuts in budget allocations. It is the tax spenders who will be afforded relief under the Democrat plans.Relief from what?

Well, from this: “If I can’t make the property tax payment in January or July, there is no point to vote Yes” on Vernon Connecticut’s thrice rejected budget proposal. That was said by Eileen Miller. She added, “We do not have it. You are literally driving us out of our homes.” Orchard Street resident James Tupponce said, “We all have our own budgets. If you can’t afford your own bills, why would you vote to increase your expenses?” Tanya Merrow of Grove Street stepped to the microphone and said, “I can’t afford to do it. I need to be able to afford the tax increase in my family budget.”

These quotes, from a Citizen’s Forum called by Vernon Mayor Ellen Marmer, were not taken from major newspapers that service the area. They were taken from the Rockville Reminder, a free community news advertising paper that circulates in the Tri-Town area that includes Vernon. The reporter who transcribed these quotes had no dog in the property tax reform fight. She just reported what she had heard.

Were it not for referendums, those words would never have seen the light of day. They would never have reached the ears of municipal officials who submitted a thrice rejected budget that would have increased spending by more than 4.25% -- in addition to earlier tax increases and a property re-evaluation increase. Then again, were it not for referendums, there would be no curbs on spending – and that is the way the tax spenders want it.

Our state budget has doubled within the terms of two and a half governors because there is no state budget referendum. Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a wild guess. My guess is that property tax reformers know this. They know that by moving a portion of payments from municipal to state government, they are avoiding unpleasant confrontations and referendums. It has become wearisome for mayors to hear from their constituents words such as these: We can’t afford your tax increases in our own budgets; you are literally driving us from our homes.

There is a message here for Republicans: You can either align yourself with the Courant and its stable of liberal columnists and Curry and the state Conference of Municipalities and Mayor Ellen Marmer and all the angels and saints in the progressivist heaven – or you can align yourself with Eileen Miller and Tanya Merrow.

So far, those who have taken up the case of Eileen Miller and Tanyy Merrow have reaped a rich harvest in votes. I know that is the case here in Windsor. It will be so in other towns as well. People are sore with the beating they have taken from reckless spenders. Waves of dissatisfaction have washed out of Connecticut members of our family with whom we might have grown old together; the victims of cutbacks and business anemia, they now visit us infrequently from low tax states where they have gone to continue working. Or if they were recent graduates, they have followed the rainbow to states whose politicians perceive a vital connection between high taxes, burdensome state regulation and anemic business activity. They ended up in the Carolinas and other boomtown states in the South. These are the fruits of our politics: smaller extended families; bloated budgets; a malingering, seemingly endless recession; and uncomprehending politicians, as secure in their positions as any potent mini-totalitarian recluse from democracy. Progressivism, which is simply are more energetic liberalism, will give us more of the same – quicker.

As Republicans, you can do something about all this. You can take this pledge: NO PROPERTY TAX REFORM WITHOUT REFERENDUMS.

It’s time to fight for Eileen Miller and Tanya Merrow. Do it for their children, and your children and grandchildren. If you shrink from the task, others will carry the day – and the future – by force.

Before I close, I want to make one clarifying remark, because I do not wish to be misunderstood. Nothing I have said here should be taken as a personal attack on Bill Curry. I like and admire Curry: He’s a generous, warm-hearted, witty and courageous man. But he is wrong about property tax reform, and I hope some day to convince him of the errors of his ways – perhaps when both of us have retired and moved to South Carolina, where never a discouraging word is heard and the days are unclouded with Hartford Courants. On the other hand, if this seed of rebellion I am attempting to plant in Windsor puts down roots – maybe I’ll sick around.
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