Friday, January 06, 2017

How To Pass A Tax And Spend Measure Without Voting On It

The trouble with voting on a measure that may later on require you to impose a tax to pay for the measure or, if you are striving to maintain current spending levels, cut spending to the deserving poor is that voters may notice the vote. During a campaign, your opponent may bring up your vote to discredit you. Here in Connecticut, voters have become mighty touchy about multiple tax increases and cuts to the deserving poor that are now necessary to balance chronically out of balance budgets.  

There is, however, a way to wrap yourself in a cloak of invisibility so the voting public may not be able to attach a legislator's name to legislative assent or dissent.

On opening day of the new 2017 legislative session of the General Assembly, the House voted to elect Representative Joe Aresimowicz Speaker -- by acclamation, which makes it impossible for anyone, voters or the media, to know with any degree of certainty which legislators approved or disapproved of Mr.  Aresimowicz’s elevation to the speaker’s position. Legislators who might have wished to register on record their disapproval were not permitted to speak against putting a longtime union member in a gate-keeper position that may frustrate or kill measures displeasing to unions. Prior to Mr.  Aresimowicz’s elevation to the speaker’s position by acclamation, the state ethics committee had ruled that it is not illegal – though it may be unethical – to put a union fox in charge of a legislative hen-house.

Mr. Aresimowicz’s unopposable elevation to a key position in the General Assembly was followed by a measure introduced by Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, that would have stripped a cloak of invisibility from legislators averse to democracy. Had it passed, the measure supported by Republicans would have assured legislative vote transparency on the approval of union contracts and pension reform.

One would assume Democrats might eagerly favor a measure requiring the General Assembly to vote openly on such issues – especially since Governor Dannel Malloy insisted during his first campaign that his would be an open government that did not rely on subterfuge in fashioning budgets.

Prior governors and legislators were not above raiding so called “dedicated funds” to balance budgets. Those days were over, candidate for governor Malloy announced. There would be no budget trickery under a straight-shooting Malloy administration. In due course, a lock-box was created to gradually pay down debt that arose from poorly conceived past contract negotiations between Mr. Malloy’s predecessors, mostly Republican governors – Governor Lowell Weicker, the father of Connecticut’s income tax, was neither Republican fish nor Democratic fowl -- and too union-friendly legislators, mostly Democrats.

In the pre-Malloy era, prior governors and legislatures had engaged in some pretty tricky maneuvers to balance on paper budgets that were in fact not balanced at all. It had been common practice, for instance, to move debt from unbalanced budgets to the future in order to achieve a precarious, momentary balance that would indicate to voters that the General Assembly had balanced a budget. The current Malloy budget moves pension debt forward to taxpayers yet unborn in order to escape the punishing payments that must be made to satisfy past commitments made in past union contracts.

Operating on the unexceptional proposition that Connecticut legislators should vote  up or down on every dollar appropriated in taxes by the General Assembly, Republicans proposed on opening day of the 2017 legislative session that the state should discontinue a practice  of long standing that union contracts are deemed approved without a vote in the General Assembly if “within 30 days of their filing with the House and Senate clerk, they have not been rejected by either chamber,” according to a piece in CTMirror.

This pass-through of union contracts not affirmed by a vote in the General Assembly is essentially undemocratic. The General Assembly is by constitutional prescription the body in charge of collecting and expending tax receipts. A decent respect for the citizens from whom taxes are collected requires an open and public vote on every dollar expended, so that citizens will know which legislators approve tax increases or spending reductions and – VERY IMPORTANT – therefore will be able to exercise their democratic responsibilities by voting such representatives in or out in general elections. This is, we’ve been told from time immemorial, how democracy works: If you like your legislator’s votes, you can vote your legislator in; if you do not like your legislator’s votes, you can vote your legislator out.  But this can only be done when the votes of particular legislators are attached openly and honestly to specific measures. Cloaks of invisibility should have no place in representative government.

Mr. Candelora said he had introduced his measure because at present “The legislature really doesn’t get an opportunity to scrutinize contracts.” Democrats, according to CTMirror, “counter that Connecticut has more than a dozen bargaining units in the Executive Branch alone, and that requiring a vote on all of their respective contracts would provide lots of ammunition that political opponents could use to distort a legislator’s position on salaries.”

The Republican measure was not approved by acclamation. Mr. Aresimowicz, whose elevation as speaker of the house was approved by acclamation, was, according to the CTMirror report, “noncommittal." The new speaker said, "We’re not sure on the exact language. We’ll evaluate it when it comes forward, and the members will vote their will.”

If, indeed, they will be permitted to vote on the measure by House Speaker Aresimowicz, part of whose responsibility involves steering measures to appropriate committees so that democracy and the will of the people may be better served by the servants of the people.

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