Friday, January 09, 2015

Connecticut’s Non-Partisan Spending Problem

Most of us are living in the land of Déjà Vu All Over Again.  Every fiscal year, we keep crashing into the same icebergs.

Ben Barnes, who heads Governor Dannel Malloy’s Office of Policy Management, has said the state may be facing chronic deficits. The last time Mr. Malloy faced a deficit, he disposed of it through tax increases. But the largest tax increase in Connecticut history failed to solve the problem because Connecticut does not have a revenue problem; it has a spending problem. Mr. Malloy said during his campaign that further tax increases were off the table, at which happy news overtaxed citizens and businesses, their eyes fixed on the exit signs, breathed a sigh of relief.

Then he began to tug the veil from his second administration.

There is not a hint of spending reduction in any post-election remarks made by Mr. Malloy thus far. But there is plenty of chatter about spending: Education must be reformed; vanishing businesses in Connecticut depend upon an educated workforce.

Thus far, educational reforms have been pushed to the back burner by progressives – who would have guessed there are Democrats in the state more progressive than Mr. Malloy? – who balked at what they considered to be Mr. Malloy’s maladroit, anti-union move to tie teacher compensation to performance. Oodles of tax cash have been dispensed to the University of Connecticut and the UConn Heath Center, while urban students still are being pushed through public school pedagogical sausage machines without noticeable improvement in their reading and math skills. Public school vouchers given to parents would instantly transform Connecticut’s educational environment by allowing consumers to choose which educational product best suits their children.

But… noooo... Can’t do that – too revolutionary, too inexpensive. Imagine allowing parents to purchase directly the services of a teacher based upon the same rational criteria one consults when buying a house or a car or a candy bar or even a politician to whom one sends campaign contributions. Vouchers would, almost in the blink of an eye, tie teacher compensation to performance; good schools, watered by vouchers, would proliferate; bad schools would perish – as well they should. Good teachers would be rewarded; bad teachers would find some other line of work. Dollars would fly to curriculum structures that worked.

"Together, let us continue to buck the national trends of obstruction and gridlock. Let us dismiss petty partisanship that divides us, and focus instead on what binds us to one another." So said Governor Dannel Malloy during his inaugural address at the State Armory.

But partisanship never has been a threat to Mr. Malloy. In the first few weeks of his first term, Mr. Malloy pushed forward what may accurately be described as a wholly partisan budget. Unlike his predecessors, he was able to form a budget without ANY Republican input. Republican Governors John Rowland and Jodi Rell presented their budgets to a highly partisan Democratic General Assembly. Mr. Malloy, after receiving from the Democratic controlled General Assembly near plenipotentiary powers to negotiate his budget with union chiefs not elected by the general public, felt very comfortable in excluding elected Republican leaders from the budget process. Mr. Malloy didn’t need them then, and he doesn’t need them now. His call for non-partisanship is an attempt to tamp down a purely rhetorical opposition. Closing the stops on the Republican organ would simply add silence to unwitting complicity.

All the major cities in Connecticut are crumbling under the weight of non-partisanship. They are corrupt and opaque one party towns. Far from being a vice, partisanship is a positive virtue. A few weeks ago, citizens in Hartford discovered that the CEO of Jumoke Academy, a charter school, was using public dollars to feather his own nest while providing jobs to his relatives. How could this have happened screeched one editorialist? It could and did happen because Hartford has for years been a one party town.  There is no live opposition party in Hartford whose partisanship might have nipped nepotism in the bud long before it flowered. Where there are no partisan eyes on the ground, there is no effective political resistance to corrupt tendencies. Where no opposition party is intolerant of corruption, tolerance of corruption will flourish.

During Mr. Malloy’s budget address on February 18, one expects the usual self-serving accolades and a good deal of talk about preparing a future less hostile to business activity, even as taxes and regulations increase. Big Ideas, rather than cuts in Big Taxes, regulations or state mandates, will be flourished and the dismal future will receive yet another fresh coat of rosy red. No one will breathe a word about spending cuts or – just to choose one money saving example – raising the retirement age of state workers by five years. All the talk thus far is directed to revenue increases rather than spending cuts – and that is why the state is cursed with recurring deficits.   
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