Monday, May 30, 2011

Cliffsnotes On Curry And The UConn Health Center

Bill Curry, who twice ran for office as governor, has written for the Hartford Courant an op-ed titled “Reinvented UConn Health Center Is A Plan To Build Our Future On.” The Curry effusion appeared in the paper’s Sunday edition just before the politically rumbustious long holiday weekend.

Because Mr. Curry's prose tends to be both dense and sprightly at the same time, it occurs to me that the student of his set pieces might profit by the equivalent of political Cliffsnotes, and I have supplied some here at the risk of turning Mr. Curry’s poetic performance into stiff analytical prose. Mr. Curry has not been quite as active on the political scene in Connecticut as, say, Mr. Malloy – who, only months into his gubernatorial reign, threatens to approach former Attorney General Richard (now Dick) Blumenthal in ubiquity -- and the notes may be necessary.

As you may have heard,” Mr. Curry begins, “Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has big plans for the University of Connecticut Health Center [UCHC] in Farmington. He wants the state to ante up $254 million in new bond money, part of an $854 million public/private enterprise to renovate research facilities, construct a new patient tower and ambulatory care center and kick-start a program to incubate fledgling bioscience companies, among other things.”

The “As you may have heard” is a subtle touch. Mr. Malloy has not been in the habit of hiding his grand plans for the state under a bushel basket. But the UCHC announcement was an urgent surprise. In his 17 Town Hall visitations, Mr. Malloy had not mentioned his “bold” and expensive UCHC plan -- not once. The announcement clearly was a blow to Republican leader Larry Cafero’s solar plexis. Some conservative pests who constantly harry us about Connecticut’s alarming – so they say – debt obligation were astonished that the governor planned to “invest” nearly $1 billion in what appeared to many a failed enterprise. And when Mr. Curry wrote in his column, “Two things are instantly clear: It's a bold plan, and it's a lot of money,” a far off bell began to tinkle in more cautious minds.

The figures cited by Mr. Curry are soft and, as always, subject to change. Prior to the long Holiday weekend, Governor Malloy said he would find a way to fill a $400 million gap in his budget. Having vowed not to increase the tax load, many supposed Mr. Malloy would wring $400 million from cost reductions. Instead, Mr. Malloy reached into an artificial “surplus,” lifting $325 million from taxpayer’s wallets to backfill the gap. Although the “surplus” – Mr. Malloy now scrupulously avoids using the term – was supposed to have watered Connecticut depleted “rainy day fund.” We now know that a good chuck of it was stuffed into a union piggybank to relieve Mr. Malloy and leaders of the Democratic dominated General Assembly from the necessity of demanding real cost saving measures from the people most responsible for electing him governor.

It is politically shrewd of Mr. Malloy to avoid using the term “surplus,” because his $1 billion surplus is not the result of an exuberant economy. Connecticut’s economy has been weak, and growing weaker the more government expands, ever since Gov. Lowell Weicker of blessed memory saved state government – NOT the state – by instituting an income tax. New Hampshire, which has maintained its non-income tax status, is flourishing, as are other non-income tax low regulatory states. The Malloy surplus is a superfluity artificially produced through the efforts of incompetent or bought accountants working in tandem with an administration that needed a $1 billion surplus to reward unions and offer bread and circuses to a bewitched public. The UConn Health Center is the circus.

On Thursday,” Mr. Curry continues, “legislators listened as university officials and the governor's emissaries pitched the project. Questions were polite and well reasoned, centering mostly on project costs, a seemingly breakneck approval process and the impact on other communities, most notably Hartford. The answers were persuasive, but were they persuasive enough? We'll soon know; Malloy wants his answer by the time the session ends on June 8.”

Mr. Curry’s note on the tenor of the questions – “polite and well reasoned” – is perhaps unnecessary, because his audience was made up of university officials who would benefit from Mr. Malloy’s “bold” and costly UCHC plan. And the “governor’s emissaries” are, after all, the governor’s emissaries. Attendant lords can hardly be expected to offer up critical commentary. The same holds true with the unionized construction workers who appeared on command at an earlier public gathering to applaud Mr. Malloy’s public works project.

A critical review of Mr. Malloy’s bold and expensive venture is unnecessary, according to Mr. Curry. And were it necessary, it would be impossible, because Mr. Malloy wants approval from the General Assembly by June 8. Just as the administration of President Barrack Obama is determined never to let a crisis go to waste, the Malloy administration seems equally determine not to let a potentially wasteful crisis pass critical examination.

Indeed, Mr. Curry invites everyone to “pray the General Assembly says yes” to Mr. Malloy, though a prayer in this instance would seem to be superfluous, since Mr. Malloy and the Democratic dominated General Assembly are sitting not only in the same church but in the same pew. When has the General Assembly said “No” to boondoggly public works projects?

Hardly ever, according to Mr. Curry. Indeed, Mr. Curry tells us, he has in the past often warned against wasteful spending.

For years,” Mr. Curry laments, “I have fought attempts to dump tax dollars into bloated projects that fly the flag of economic development. Best were the ones that never got off the ground; the Kraft stadium, Bridgeport casino and New Haven mall cost millions, but less than if they'd actually been built.


“New London tore itself apart over development, only to be left at the altar by the intended beneficiary, the Pfizer Corp. Hartford thought it hit the jackpot 16 years ago when the state bestowed $1 billion on Adriaen's Landing. If it makes it to a 20th anniversary without even a dress shop or diner on Front Street, someone should apologize.”

The example of Pfizer may even be worse than Mr. Curry supposes. Pfizer accepted tax credits given by a generous Republican governor and Democratic General Assembly, used the tax savings to develop its business, and then, when the credits ran out, packed part of its business off to Massachusetts, formerly and derisively called “Taxachusetts.” Mr. Curry, however, is not prepared to argue from the example he provides that tax credits should not be used by the Malloy administration to lure into the state portable businesses that will migrate out when the political favors disappear.

Mr. Curry distains this “long march of folly” which “casts a shadow now on Malloy” and his grand plan. He adamantly denies that the Malloy venture has not been properly vetted; it may have been over-vetted. The Malloy proposal “is the product of decades of professional analysis, regulatory review and legislative debate.”

To be sure, the analysis, regulatory review and legislative debate did not result in the positive action Mr. Malloy now proposes, which would seem to mean either: a) the exhaustive review was not exhaustive enough, b) the conclusion both Mr. Curry and Mr. Malloy would have preferred became politically waterlogged, or c) the plan had been tried and found wanting too often to resurrect it yet again. Mr. Curry is a proponent of view b): “Most of this plan has been before this legislature many times, only to be drowned each time in a gumbo of Capitol politics.”

But God, or whoever it is Mr. Curry prays to, now has raised up a champion in Mr. Malloy, who will “foreshorten” the quite unnecessary deliberative process of the pettifogging General Assembly. Mr. Malloy has given the General Assembly only a little more than a week to answer Mr. Curry’s prayers.

Mr. Curry’s column ends on a very high note:

What is ingenious in this plan is what's new in it. Unlike past plans, it doesn't just try to solve one institution's fiscal problems or even improve its quality. Malloy wants not just to redevelop the health center but to reorient and retool it. What he's trying to do in Farmington is a microcosm of what he knows he must do for an entire state: Help us to build from our known strengths, new strengths.


“This isn't just another casino, or ballpark or convention center. This could be a future.”

Or it could be the end of a future.

In either case, the matter ought to be fully deliberated in the light of such new circumstances as these: 1) Connecticut’s budget debt is about $4 billion and rising, because inflation is on the up tick. Bailouts from the national government seem improbable, because the national debt is $14 trillion, and rising. Connecticut is spending about $2 billion more a year than it should to regain solvency. Mr. Malloy’s funding plan for the heath center will be financed with $338 million in previously authorized bonds, $254 million in new bonding and $69 million from the health center. The outpatient center would be paid for with $203 in private financing. All these figures are soft, and Connecticut’s bond rating has been lowered because the rating agencies do not believe that the state has attacked its debt properly.

Finally, the most serious objection to Mr. Curry’s call for a hasty decision on nearly $1 billion in new spending was leveled by John Ray in his proverb collection of 1687:

Haste makes waste, and waste makes want, and want makes strife between the good man and his wife."
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