Thursday, June 22, 2017

Connecticut Down, A June Keynote Address

I began writing “Connecticut Commentary: Red Notes From A Blue State” more than 23 years ago because early on I glimpsed the dark at the end of the tunnel, and I was determined to make a record of the destruction of Connecticut, so that, years in the future, if anyone, poking his or her head above the rubble, wished to consult a record that tried valiantly to answer the questions – What went wrong, and who were the culprits?– he or she would have a faithful reference point.

Today, I have an opportunity to render an abbreviated version of the longer account. I plan to touch here on the wrong-headed policies that have led us into the dark tunnel, some of the personalities involved, the rise of progressivism in Connecticut under the stewardship of Governor Dannel Malloy, the political repercussions of unsound policies, and what the French have called “the treason of the intellectuals.” Not to paint too bleak a picture – people generally don’t want to hear bad news – I should say at the outset that there is reason for hope. Hope is a new arrival in Connecticut. The sun is there, somewhere, attempting to break through the storm clouds.

The record of the destruction of Connecticut begins with former Governor Lowell Weicker, who was for two decades a Republican U.S. Senator. There were people during Weicker’s rise in the U.S. Senate following Watergate, Bill Buckley among them, who were willing to swear on a stack of bibles that Weicker never was a Republican. And there is a good deal of hard data to support this view. Weicker’s liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) rating, just before he was given the heave-ho by frazzled Republicans and Joe Lieberman Democrats, was higher than that of U.S. Senator Chris Dodd. After his defeat by Lieberman, Weicker went on to win the governorship, running as an Independent on a throwaway party ticket. His campaign was milquetoasty and deliberately misleading. He assured everyone that initiating an income tax during a recession would be like “pouring gas on a fire,” which would seem to suggest to the politically astute in Connecticut that Weicker did not intend to follow Bill Cibes into that dark night. Cibes ran for governor in a Democratic primary on a pro-income tax platform and was soundly defeated, no surprise to Democratic regulars who recalled former Governor Ella Grasso’s strenuous objections to an income tax.

Once elected Governor, Weicker cajoled, bullied and bribed Democrats in the General Assembly to pass his tax. Governor Bill O’Neill’s last budget was $7.5 billion, and the devil of a deficit he was seeking to exorcise, without an income tax, was $1.5 billion. Presently, more than a quarter century later, the bottom line on Malloy’s biennial budget is $40 billion, and the current deficit is $5 billion. This alarming difference between our pre and post income tax years points to a precipitous increase in spending.

What was the position of the intellectuals in the Weicker-post-Weicker period on taxing, spending and deficits? Uniformly, it was that Connecticut was not suffering a spending problem but a revenue problem. If you spot a deficit coming through the rye, do not cut spending – raise taxes. This destructive and sycophantic position was politically safe, absolutely guaranteed not to displease the powers that be. These power players were, in the post Weicker period to the present: progressives in the ruling Democratic Party, state employee unions -- Connecticut’s fourth branch of government -- friendly ideological operatives, including academics and progressive with knives in their brains; in short, the avowed enemies of conservativism who, in Connecticut, are legion.

I’m here compelled to say a word about progressivism – the progressivism of our own time, not the animating ideology of Republican Teddy Roosevelt, the first serious presidential progressive, or William Jennings Bryan, a prairie-populist turned progressive, or Eugene Debs, a socialist presidential candidate who had taken progressivism to its logical end, or Democrat President Woodrow Wilson, an autocrat and an anti-constitutionalist. Wilson’s opposite number was Republican President Calvin Coolidge, who made his mark in politics when he was Governor of Massachusetts by firing Boston police who had gone on strike. “No one,” Coolidge said, “has the right to strike against the public interest, anywhere, anytime, for any reason” -- very Reaganesque. Coolidge, like President John Kennedy after him, cut taxes;  more importantly, he cut spending which increased tax revenues by spurring business activity. These measures put the roar in the Roaring Twenties.

Progressivism is the notion that Big Brother knows best. A related theorem is: if government is good, more government is better. President Barack Obama and Malloy, both Wilsonian progressives, enthusiastically embraced both propositions. Obama, who set out to change politics as we know it – really to change the face of the country permanently – was for a time partly successful, and his successes were the envy of progressive chief executives everywhere. Connecticut, under the administration of Malloy, walked the Obama plank – cheerfully, energetically. And the result we see before us. In Connecticut, a petri dish of progressivism, the failures of a government directed economy are dramatic. The acrid odor of brimstone is in the air.

Democratic House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, a “union-first” man employed as the Education Coordinator for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 4, is frightened just thinking of the 4,200 possible layoffs of union members necessitated by fealty to progressive prescriptions. Given curdled budget projections, we are now told the deficit has grown, in which case we should regard the 4,200 figure as a term of art. Aresimowicz will not, however, abandon progressive prescriptions for a more moderate course – say, eliminating for new hires the state’s costly pension system and replacing it with far less expensive plan, ending collective bargaining for benefits for state employees after current contracts expires in 2022, elimination pensions for teachers and allowing them to collect social security. These are all planks in the Republican Party plan to reform state expenditures. At a minimum, Republican leaders should be present at the negotiating table when Malloy and the members SEBAC, the union conglomerate authorized to negotiate contracts with the governor, get together to have coffee over Connecticut’s corpse.

Republican legislators lately have insisted they should be present in any formerly smoke-filled-back-room where tax dollars are auctioned off to the high political bidders. That would be a welcome reform.

Here in Connecticut, the Obama wave carried Malloy, elected Governor two years after Obama was sworn in as President, into office. And the political correlation of forces here in Connecticut was eerily similar to the national configuration. Upon election to office, Obama had cleared the deck of Republicans; the White House and both Houses of Congress fell to Democrats. The same was true in Connecticut. For the first time since the O’Neill administration, Connecticut had a Democratic governor. The General Assembly, of course, had been a Democratic preserve for decades. And, as we all know, while the governor proposes budgets to the General Assembly, the legislature is responsible for the final product. For those familiar with the workings of state government, Malloy’s often repeated refrain that he had “inherited his problems” from two preceding Republican governors strikes a discordant note. Malloy has been attributing to Republican gubernatorial servers a dog-food meal served up by Democratic chefs.

Upon becoming governor, Malloy moved quickly to marginalize the Republican Party. His first budget was a Democratic Party product free of GOP fingerprints. Not a fool, Malloy must have realized at the time that a budget fashioned entirely by Democrats would not give his party much wiggle room if the real world consequences that followed his budget were unacceptable. And they are. Malloy’s first budget included a massive tax increase, the largest in state history. There was some pretense at spending cuts, but nothing that seriously alarmed SEBAC. Then State Senator Edith Prague, the Chairwoman of the Labor Committee and a longtime union supporter, allowed that SEBAC would have been insane not to accept the offer made by Malloy to the union chiefs.

During his second term, Malloy imposed on Connecticut taxpayers yet another tax increase, the second largest in state history, after which he pledged to balance further anticipated budget deficits through spending cuts. Last month, Malloy reiterated that his budget would contain no REVENUE INCREASES. There is, Mr. Malloy  said, “a clear and growing consensus between our administration, and legislative Democrats and Republicans that this year's eventual budget should not and will not be driven by NEW REVENUE." 

In fact, the Malloy budget does contain revenue increases. His budget shifts from the state to municipalities about one third of pension payments, which used to be absorbed by state government. If the state is paying a third less in pension costs, the state has realized a considerable revenue gain. This month, Malloy announced that he had readjusted his budget to account for new expected revenue losses in the amount of $1.5 billion during the next two years. Municipal aid will be cut $700 million; $80 million in tax hikes will be added to the $600 million in new yearly taxes he recommended three months ago; the real property of non-profit hospitals will be open to taxation – on, and on it goes. Increasing taxes is the one trick pony of tax famished progressives.

Of course, Connecticut could save a great deal of money – permanent, repetitive savings -- by shifting teachers to social security, a sun-burst suggestion made by Chris Powell of the Journal Inquirer. Powell also has suggested the following permanent fixes: 1) end collective bargaining and binding arbitration, two anti-democratic policies that “remove the great bulk of government expense from the ordinary democratic process, making it an untouchable ‘fixed cost,’" 2) end social promotion in education and with it costly remediation by colleges, 3) stop financing social failure through a welfare policy that “doesn't reduce poverty but subsidizes antisocial behavior and thereby perpetuates poverty, leaving ever more children fatherless, neglected, undisciplined, demoralized, unhealthy, and even disturbed or criminal.”

People in this room might say that the chance of any of this happening is on a par with the snowball’s chance of survival in Hell. But our ambition should be to save the state, and one does this, Sam Adams says, by lighting bonfires in the hearts of men and women.

So here we are. Malloy has now passed yet another unbalanced budget to a General Assembly that appears to be less hegemonic than it was when he and the Democrat dominated General Assembly were heaping the largest and the second largest tax increases on the shoulders of taxpayers struggling with their own municipal and household budgets. It was only this May 21st that Connecticut celebrated – if that is the word for it – tax freedom day, the point on the calendar during which Connecticut taxpayers are, so to speak, working for themselves rather than the federal and state governments. Connecticut is the only state in the union to have lost population during its protracted recession; and, in fact, the state has not yet recovered from the “Great Recession,” which officially ended in 2009, eight years ago. The formation of a budget has now gone into extra innings, largely because Republicans are insisting on applying real solutions to real problems. 

Even Malloy knows, at this late date, that Connecticut is suffering from a spending problem. That essentially is what Ben Barnes, Malloy’s budget guru, meant when he said several months ago that Connecticut would have to get used to frequent deficits. The deficits are frequent because no one yet has reached behind them to address what it is that causes deficits. We know that it cannot be insufficient taxes, yet Democrats persist in liquidating deficits, always temporarily, by imposing tax increases and shifting funds from here to there. In Connecticut, the expression “dedicated fund” is a term of art; nearly every dedicated fund is a slush fund used by big spenders in the General Assembly to patch deficits caused by big spending.  Connecticut’s revenue streams are dwindling. The state appears to have reached a point of diminishing returns in which tax increases produce less revenue. That may seem paradoxical to those who do not understand the countervailing effect of high taxes and burdensome regulations on business activity. In rolling out their utopia, progressives – and, in Connecticut at least, nearly all the political decision makers on the Democratic side are progressives – care little for secondary, unintended consequence. And the consequences, apparently, do not care very much for the progressives either. Every week, progressive utopians are punched in the nose by unintended consequences. Nosebleeds are everywhere.

Let us suppose that Connecticut wished seriously to address its spending problem; and by “Connecticut” we here must mean the WHOLE polis, not just the administrative, legislative and judicial arms of state government. Weicker’s mistake lay in his working assumption that if he could increase government revenues by the imposition of a state income tax, he would save the state; but in fact, the Weicker income tax saved the governing state the necessity of making prudent, long term, permanent spending cuts that would have benefited the real state – businesses and families and civic organizations and churches and schools that do not necessarily pop into a government official’s head when he thinks of THE STATE. Were Weicker asked in 1991 to define the state, he could not have done better than the Sun King, Louis XIV, “L’etat, cest moi” – I am the state. Of course, in a democracy, we consider such kingly arrogance unseemly. Even Weicker, who occasionally puffed himself up like a toad, would have considered the remark a bit much. Weicker would have said “the state is us” – and by “us,” he would mean himself – principally himself -- and his little band of progressive brothers, now grown to battalion size.

So, how does the governing state make permanent, long term cuts in spending? A promising beginning would be to refrain from raising taxes, which relieve legislators and governors of the obligation to cut spending. One thing we know from bitter experience: a Democratic governor alone cannot wring permanent, long term savings from his chief constituency, public employee unions. In the matter of union solidarity, Malloy has been the showiest of show-boaters, marching along with other prominent Democrat politicians on union strike lines. Malloy’s attempts to wring permanent savings from contract negotiations with SEBAC have been conspicuous failures. In fact, the whole negotiating process is a conspicuous failure – for this reason, among others: the contract negotiations, mostly elaborate Kabuki theater exercises, are not finalized BEFORE the General Assembly has put its budget to bed. And because the contracts extend so far into the future, they narrow the already small space in which governors operate; like pensions, contracts represent “fixed costs.” In Connecticut, fixed costs represent about 30 percent of the state’s budget.  More importantly, Democratic legislators were not on firm constitutional grounds when in the past they invested Malloy with plenary powers to adjust budgets THEY are constitutionally responsible for creating. Republicans lately have been pressuring Malloy to allow them to participate in union negotiations, but that desideratum is directed to a governor who, during his first budget, banned Republicans from the budget discussion process altogether.

But not for long. The unpopular Malloy – approval rating 28 percent, the lowest in the nation – has lame-ducked himself. In 20 months, we will not have Malloy to kick around anymore which, one hopes, will not prevent GOP hopefuls from kicking around his progressive record in office. The antique Democratic Party apparat in the General Assembly may or may not remain in power, but the GOP has made impressive gains. Even though Connecticut backed Clinton in the general election 55-41, Democrats now have lost seats in the House, from 86 Democrats-64 Republicans to 79 Democrats -72 Republicans , and in the Senate, from 21 Democrats -15 Republicans  to an 18-18 tie.

And now we come to the nub of the matter: It’s is only a matter of time before the state’s capital city, Hartford, declares bankruptcy and begins to shake off the shackles that have brought it to its present low estate. Given the near prostrate condition of Connecticut and its major cities, can Republicans regain the governor’s office, re-balance the state’s U.S. Congressional Delegation and capture at least one House of the General Assembly? And if they do manage to upset the hegemonic Democratic apple cart, will they fall into the usual Republican slough of imitating progressive Democrats? Will they play it safe on social issues of moment? In the end, all economic issues are social issues.

Does bankruptcy have no social repercussions? I believe that this is the Achilles’ heel of the GOP in Connecticut. Forgetting everything and learning nothing has been a path downward for Connecticut Republicans. At what point does the flight of business from Connecticut to less punishing low tax and low regulatory states become a “social issue” on a par with, say, abortion on demand? The very mention of any rational regulation of late term abortion causes Republican tongues to fall silent. Why? I’ve called Blumenthal the Senator from Planned Parenthood – with good reason. As Connecticut’s Attorney General for two decades, and now as the first consumer protection senator in the US Congress, Blumenthal was and is the most menacing, regulation-prone politician in Connecticut history.

A few years ago, a fireman in Connecticut seduced a 16 year old cadet under his charge, got her pregnant and procured an abortion for her, all without her parent’s knowledge. Some people think that a parent of such a child should be advised by abortion facilities when statutory rapists procure abortions for their victims on the sly. Connecticut does have a reporting requirement in cases such as these, but that requirement has not, in this instance and others been religiously observed by abortion providers.

Chris Powell is right: it is a welfare system that finances childbearing out of wedlock that has caused poverty and lawlessness in cities, run politically for decades by Democrat Party machines that ingratiate themselves with impoverished mothers whose children, fatherless, have run to seed. Is the absence of fathers in large urban areas given over to crime and murder in the streets a social issue or an economic issue? Surely it’s both. Why have Republicans surrendered social issues terrain to Democrats? If politics is war by polite means, how can you hope to win the war by ceding to the metaphorical “enemy” half the battlefield?

The opposite of progressivism is not regressivism, but rather a repristination of ordered liberty. While our founders – whose wisdom we ignore at our peril – created a system of government in which legislative, executive and judicial departments remain separate but equal, it is the lawmaking body, the legislature, that has over decades lost influence to the other two departments of government. One of the founders cautioned that people in the newly formed United States need not fear a Supreme Court because the Supreme Court could never be more powerful than the governor of New York.  Newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, both his champions and opponents in the U.S. Congress will agree, is far more powerful than Andrew Cuomo, who cannot abolish laws written in Connecticut.

Here in Connecticut, we have recently born witness to the power of our State Supreme Court, which overturned the state’s death penalty for eleven vicious murders awaiting justice on death row. Almost immediately after the state legislature had reasserted the justice of those punishments, the court argued that capital punishment offended modern sensibilities. One of the newly appointed Justices to the Supreme Court, Andrew McDonald -- who had as co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, along with Mike Lawlor, now Connecticut’s prison czar, unsuccessfully agitated numerous time for a legislative repeal of the death penalty -- did not recuse himself from sitting on a case that resulted in the abolition of the death penalty for eleven death row inmates who had committed heinous crimes; two of them were responsible for the notorious murders in Cheshire. As a Supreme Court Justice, McDonald overrode his former colleagues in the state legislature – even though they, rather than he, represented current thought on the death penalty.

The answer to progressivism – higher taxes, more crippling and costly regulation, the flight of entrepreneurial capital from the state, cities long dominated by Democrats in which the poor are kept in guided welfare cages, governors who are forced to pay bribes to businesses to retain them in the state, a mare’s nest of agencies that deny basic rights through administrative decree, and much more – is the conservative corrective. We may hope that discontent in our state has reached it Thermidor point. Thermidor, students of the French Revolution will understand, was that point on the French calendar when the bloody French Revolution turned against itself. The Revolution, students of history will recall, was replaced by a Napoleonic dictatorship and afterwards a restored monarchy.

It was not Robespierre, guillotined during Thermidore, who destroyed monarchical and authoritarian government here in the United States. That task fell to Sam Adams, the best journalist of his day, known during his own times as The Father of the American Revolution. His words, which have graced the masthead of Connecticut Commentary: Red Notes From A Blue State for 23 years, a gauntlet thrown down to the patriots of 1776, may serve as a capstone to this talk:

“If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.”

Despair is a sin; indeed, it is the sin that will not be forgiven. My own hope is buoyed by the thought that the fire that lived in the bones of men like Adams has not been quenched. My countrymen do not like crouching or chains or servitude or French Revolutions or Napoleons or the tyranny of the administrative state. What conservatives want is a revival of what G.K. Chesterton once called the little platoons of democracy, and it strikes me that the group assembled here is a little platoon of democracy. Thank you for inviting me to speak with you. If you have some questions, I will try my best to answer them.

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