Saturday, February 19, 2011

DeStefano’s Choice

It would be a considerable understatement to say that Mayor John DeStefano of New Haven is everyman’s liberal; he is every liberal’s liberal.

A piece written by Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent, “A Mayor’s Moment Of Truth,” very likely came as a shock to confirmed liberals in Connecticut, a state bluer even than Massachusetts. Progressives, liberals with attitudes, one supposes were even more distraught.

Listening attentively, the thud, thud, thud of bodies falling from third story windows in New Haven might have been heard by those without wax in their ears in the corridors of power in Hartford.

What? DeStefano? Even he?

A few days before a fireball of union revulsion, supported by a group of White House affiliated brown shirts, burst over Wisconsin, Mr. DeStefano faced his own moment of truth in New Haven and decided to say no to a police union. The results were predictable. The police marched on Town Hall. Busy agitating in Wisconsin and other hot spots of union resistance in the country, the union fireball has yet to singe the pants of cowering politicians in Connecticut, but busses probably have been chartered.

DeStefano, facing the usual dilemma -- do I concede to union demands for increasingly unsustainable salaries and pensions or do I run my city into the red? – decided, in his moment of truth, to come down on the side of a) taxpayers who no longer can support city workers extravagant claims on their purses, and b) those who are dependent on city tax resources considerably diminished by union demands. At a point when taxes cannot be raised – because taxpayers are themselves now living off their own fat in this the winter of their discontent – the distribution of tax money becomes a zero-sum game.

DeStefano had been in negotiations with unions for weeks. The mayor wanted real cuts in spending, so he proposed that pensions in the future should be calculated on salaries alone and  not, as at present, on salaries plus overtime. The union said no. The mayor wanted reductions in cost of living increases. The union said no. The mayor wanted cost saving devices such as co-pays inserted into health plans. The union said no. The mayor wanted to extend the retirement age of police officers five years from 20 to 25. The union said no.

“It is not for lack of talking,” DeStefano said. “I don’t know how to reach them. The choices don’t exist anymore. We’ve been around and around on this. They just don’t get it. I don’t know how to make them get it.”

And then the thought slithered into his mind: What about “my responsibilities to the 82 [city workers getting laid off, as well as] my responsibility to the 125,000 people that live here? I could have kicked the can down the road this [fiscal] year, but I would have left a bigger problem for everybody next year. It would have been that much harder to fix this thing. It’s got to be reset. It’s the moment. It’s the time. We can do it with less pain than they think.”

For unions, there are untapped genies in the bottle: greedy businesses, millionaires jealously guarding their swag, companies that have escaped a tax thrashing through exemptions, tolls. After state Senator Edith Prague called for the re-imposition of tolls because, as she said, “We need the money,” a Prague critic suggested the toll booth should be placed at the end of her driveway.

Progressives, for more than 20 years operating on the premises that Connecticut had a revenue not a spending problem, have been extraordinarily inventive in emptying pockets and chasing jobs out of the state. It got so bad a couple of years ago that former Gov. Lowell Weicker, father of the state income tax, was heard lamenting, “Where did it all go?” When Mr. Weicker said during his own gubernatorial campaign that instituting an income tax would add gasoline to a smoldering fire, he could not have imagined the conflagration his tax would inspire twenty years later. The income tax was supposed to have solved the revenue problem.

Mr. DeStefano will not be the last progressive in the state to realize we’ve grabbed a spending problem by the tail. In the meantime, the battle for hearts and minds in New Haven has been joined. Union reinforcements, one may be sure, are on the way.
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