Monday, November 08, 2004

Lowell Weicker Comes Up For Air

Just when you think things can’t get worse, things get worse.

Today – Sunday, October 17 – I went to fetch my Hartford Courant from its bright blue box. Carrying the five pound thing into the house is something of a chore. It usually takes me ten minutes to weed out the ads and fillers, after which I toss out sections I never read, about three quarters of the paper. Next, I gingerly skip over the usual liberal blabmeisters – Colin McEnroe, for one, though the paper is lush with them– at which point the thing becomes manageable and more readable.

Northeast Magazine is usually dense with liberal fodder, but Kevin Rennie, once a Republican legislator, is sometimes elegantly articulate in his regular column.

Not today.

Rennie, who quickly learned how to make himself indispensable to his liberal handlers at the Courant, launched a paean to Chris Dodd, rather as if the longtime U.S. senator could not retain his seat without plaudits from a moderate Republican. And McEnroe, always toxic when downed in large gulps -- His stream of consciousness method of writing is exhausting – mentioned a quip about Dodd made by Chris Powell, who said in a column he writes regularly for the Journal Inquirer that the senator probably would not deign to notice his competitor this year. The closest Dodd may come to mentioning the name Orlucci, Powell wrote, “was when he sneezes.”

Former Editorial Page Editor John Zakarian, now retired, used to boast that conservative writers would leech onto his staff only over his dead body. For appearances’sake, the Courant keeps one Connecticut-grown libertarian writer on its pages – in a cage, at a safe remove from the liberal bestiary -- but he is not on the staff. As a result, the paper is stiff with liberal rigor mortis, one of the reasons most papers in Connecticut have lost readership.

The transition from the usual Sunday liberal fodder to the editorial page, unfailingly liberal, is always effortless. So, by the time I got to the commentary section, I was primed for anything … short of, “Where Did All The Money Go?” by former Governor Lowell P. Weicker Jr.

The art supporting Weicker’s op-ed article sports a broken piggy bank, showing a cavernous , dark, empty belly, where there ought to be glittering gold, or a least a remnant of the horde shoveled into the pig’s belly by Lowell Weicker, the father of Connecticut’s income tax.

The prose, liberally speckled with “I’s” is typically Weickerian.

Here are some treasured specimens:

“During Connecticut's recent political soap opera, I had a hard time staying quiet (So do cats naturally given to caterwauling). But, afraid that one resignation might maintain the political status quo, I'm now going to cut loose.”

The resignation Weicker is referring to is that of former governor John Rowland. Personally, I’m having a hard time discovering how the resignation of Rowland, forced out of office at the sword point of impeachment, could contribute to the maintenance of the status quo.

An untidy half-thought maybe?

The real purpose of Weicker’s uninhibited, cussed cutloosedness, it soon becomes obvious, is to puff himself up, however strenuously he may deny it – as it happens, in the very next paragraph.

“Aside from a tour of duty in the U.S. Army, my life for the past 46 years has been Connecticut. I set down my bona fides herein not for purposes of puffery but to establish by resume the reason I know our state inside and out, especially its politics and government.”

That second graph sort of makes you wish he had cut loose inside a confessional, doesn’t it?

Then follows three dense paragraphs that look suspiciously like resume puffing.

“My political life started in 1960 with election to the Connecticut legislature as state representative from Greenwich. I served in that post until 1968. In 1963, I was concurrently elected first selectman of Greenwich for four years. In 1968, I defeated an incumbent Democrat to become congressman from Connecticut's 4th District. (In his resume puff, Weicker fails to mention that he entered public life as a fire breathing conservative and maintained that posture until it collapsed when he ran for the senate, it having dawned on him that Connecticut was a liberal state.) In 1970, the U.S. Senate beckoned, and after a three-way race, I commenced serving three terms as first junior and then senior senator from Connecticut. In 1988, defeat presented itself in the person of Joe Lieberman. (Note the passive voice. Why can’t he just say “I was defeated by Lieberman, a curse be upon him?”) With two years off to become active in the nonprofit health care community in Washington, I returned in 1990 to run as an independent for governor of Connecticut, again in a three-way race. I won that contest (having vowed never to consider an income tax, a solution to Connecticut’s woes that Weicker likened to “pouring gas on a fire”) and became chief executive of the state I had served for so long as a legislator.”The next four years were the toughest of my political career. (But Weicker’s press was laudatory throughout the state -- with an exceptional column written by yours truly in the Journal Inquirer -- mostly because he gave the liberal media what it wanted, an income tax.) Not only were they hard on me, they were brutal on the state legislators, Democrat and Republican, who time and again stood up for doing the right thing (the imposition of a new income tax) rather than wimping out for soft landings on issues that had bedeviled the state for years. I'm talking about excessive spending, excessive bonding, high sales taxes, increasing deficits, raiding trust funds, high corporate taxes and unstable revenue streams - never mind education and health care systems that were running on fumes with no reason to anticipate any improvements (italics mine).”During the next four years, the budget went from an inherited billion-dollar deficit to a surplus of $60 million. Sales and corporate taxes were reduced, spending was drastically cut and a low income tax was initiated. At the same time, capital gains, interest and dividend taxes were eliminated. The state had gone from a hand-to-mouth existence to an unparalleled revenue stream of Indian gaming monies and revenues from the income tax. It was also going in 1995 from uncertain economic times to eight years of unparalleled prosperity. The table had been set for an exciting future for cities, children, the frail - in truth, a bright future for all of us.”

Then follows Weicker’s analysis of what went wrong.

“It was at this time of greatest promise that the two-party system failed, ethics failed and - worst - we, the voters, failed. Instead of great opportunities for all, the pigs of malfeasance and misfeasance lined up at the public trough to gobble down the resources of the state. So much for a history that is indisputable. The question squarely in all of our faces is: Where do we go from here?”

Just to begin with, it was a failure of the two party system that gave us the income tax: In a conspicuous failure of partisanship, Republicans combined with Democrats to pour gas on the fire, and the income tax was, at best, a temporary solution to the problems Weicker outlined in his Courant opinion article.

At the present time, the current budget is twice what it was in pre-income tax days, when the problems mentioned by Weicker -- “excessive spending, excessive bonding, high sales taxes, increasing deficits, raiding trust funds, high corporate taxes and unstable revenue streams - never mind education and health care systems that were running on fumes with no reason to anticipate any improvements” – were presumably settled by an income tax.

So then, here we are after “the table had been set for an exciting future for cities, children, the frail - in truth, a bright future for all of us” and 1) the budget has doubled, 2) the surpluses are gone, replaced by budget deficit potholes, 3) media “know-it-alls” now are complaining that Rowland’s last few budgets relied on “gimmicks” much like those cited by Weicker, 4) spending is twice as excessive as in the pre-income tax days of Governor William O’Neill, though liberals continue to insist, in the words of Michele Jacklyn, the Courant’s chief political columnist, that “Connecticut doesn’t have a spending problem; it has a revenue problem,” 5) bonding is even more excessive, about two or three times what it was during problematic, pre-income tax budgets, 6) the sales tax has risen, 7) trust funds have been raided, and 8) public education, especially in urban areas, has tanked. The failure of urban public education in Hartford was so spectacular – rising, for once, to the notice of Courant reporters and political writers who work in Hartford – that the state was forced to take over the failing schools. They are still failing.

Every single item mentioned by Weicker as having made the income tax necessary – every one, and more not mentioned by him – has worsened in post income tax days, when the state was run by two Republican governors, Weicker, a faux Republican, and John Rowland, a repentant ex-conservative.

Weicker raises the question of corruption in the Rowland administration only to dismiss it: “The departure of a corrupt governor does not solve the problems. Whether or not John Rowland is indicted for corruption is not the answer to situations that are endemic to our state government.” In a frumious mood, he can’t resist the usual dig at Rowland, who opposed the income tax while spending it happily enough. So did everyone.

And then, after what appears to be an endless, self congratulatory ramble, finally Weicker raises but does not address adequately the right question: “For example, who spent all the money that rolled in during the late 1990s and early 2000s?”

Not all of the money – twice the amount of O’Neill’s last pre-income tax budget – found its way into the pockets of "corrupt politicians and their abettors.”

Where did it go?

Down the rabbit hole.

Here is my theory: The real restraints on state spending – disturbing red ink; temporary rather than permanent solutions to budget deficits on the spending side; the opposition to spending increases by strong and principled political parties; the frank recognition on the part of politicians that, when spending has doubled within the space of two governors, the state is facing a spending rather than a revenue problem – were removed by the income tax.

And the removal of restraints led to a period of aggressive spending. This is why the budget has doubled since pre-income tax days.

Weicker’s “solution” removed all restraints on spending. So loosed, spending, like a bird, took flight, and money flew out the window, kissed good-bye by the good government folk who believe in the anti-Marxian notion that the richer the state is, the richer people will be. For Weicker and his ilk, the instruments of government are the people. When Weicker says that the state is healthy, he means that state coffers are full. The early Marx, an incurable romantic, presented a quite different dichotomy: The richer the state, the poorer the people.

When Weicker says all’s right with the world, he means all’s well with the governing class.

In his Courant article, Weicker proposed two solutions: 1) Throw the bums out, and 2) restore fiscal discipline.

Fat chance!

Solutions are effected by efficient means. The only way to throw out the bums – i.e. entrenched incumbents -- is through some sort of term limits, which Weicker has always opposed. The Courant, forgetting Weicker’s example, generally argues that term limits would deprive government of knowledgeable politicians. Actually, they would provide parties with knowledgeable unemployed politicians who, ousted from their sinecures, would become available for other positions.

And doesn’t the call for fiscal discipline, after all the bars to excessive spending have been removed, come a bit too late?

Actually, I would -- and have -- favored both these solutions. The media, entirely a creature of incumbents, especially here in Connecticut, continues to sniff at both of them.

Weicker’s discussion of corruption in the Rowland administration is – rather purposefully, I think -- incomplete.

Rowland sought to insulate himself from corrupt activity by surrendering his responsibilities to subordinates. Prior to Rowland, state contracts were vetted through the governor’s office: Weicker, O’Neill, Meskill and Grosso all left their fingerprints on state contracts. Neither the sitting grand jury probing the Rowland administration nor the impeachment panel nor the state’s intrepid investigative reporters are interested in extending their investigations into other administrations.

Rowland’s miscalculation was to suppose that if his office assigned to others the responsibility of vetting contracts, there would remain no legal quid pro quo on the basis of which he could be prosecuted when accepting favors from contractors doing business with the state. Why not accept a hot tub from William Tomasso if Rowland could plausibly argue that all state contracts with the Tomasso companies were arranged by others and vetted by the attorney general’s office? No quid pro quo there.

What a pity that, thus far, no one has examined possible malfeasance in the office of other governors who were legally responsible for contractual agreements.

But don’t hold your breath expecting Rowland hunters in the media to set their sights on … well, Weicker, among others.

It ain’t gonna happen

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