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Rell’s coattails

The length of a politician’s coattails is proportional to the vigor of his – or, in the present case, her – campaign. The more vigorous the campaign, the longer the coattails. That is the lesson of the highly successful Republican campaign associated with the “Contract with America”, a document cobbled together by Dick Armey from Ronald Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union address.

The real danger in a lackluster campaign waged by Gov. Jodi Rell is that she may not perceive the connection between idea-based, vigorous campaigns and coattails.

The temptation popular governors and other politicians fall prey to, with predictable results, is to use their popularity as a skate board to coast into office. It is generally assumed, wrongly, that a strong top ticket will pull lesser politicians into a winning orbit. That assumption may have been true in the glory days of political parties, when voters regularly pulled party levers and were guided by strong party leaders; but those halcyon days in which Democrat Party boss John Bailey – rather than carpetbagger bloggers from DailyKos – selected winning party nominees are a thing of the past, done in by decades of reforms.

Former Governor John Rowland, wildly popular before he ended up in jail, had no coattails. At the end of his career, it had become nearly impossible to distinguish him from the usual moderate Democrat or quisling Republican. Connecticut Republicans -- the smaller, defenseless animals in the political jungle -- generally adopt the coloration of Democrats so as to avoid being eaten. Rowland was a master at improvisation, and there are, no doubt, many independent and unaffiliated voters in the state, along with a few blinkered Republicans, who still remember him as a “breakwater” against improvident spending. “What breakwater?” a realist would ask: The present budget is twice what it was when the last Democrat governor left office.

This year, Democrats have nominated as their choice for governor a true blue progressive. One conservative friend calls John DeStefano the Hugo Chavez of Connecticut politics. DeStefano’s spending ambitions are excessive, but never mind: Hard working middle class taxpayers need not trouble themselves with an ever expanding budget, because DeStefano does not intend to burden them by requiring a majority of voters to pay for the services they consume. Majorities, it will be recalled, elect governors. The payments for improvident spending will be charged to others, and the millionaire’s tax, still a gleam in the eyes of progressives, will more than take care of any spending overage.

And there will be overages. No one yet has totted up the surpluses consumed by our state’s politicians since the institution of the income tax – Remember, a surplus is a tax overage – but it’s right up there with the grossly inflated gasoline tax and other business disincentives. One of the reasons businesses flee the state, voting against improvident budgets with their feet, is that the whole notion of a break on spending has become a colossal, transparent joke. One of the reasons new businesses do not choose to settle in Connecticut is that there are no restraints on spending. The fabled “breakwater” is a convenient myth constructed by incumbents to entertain voters come election time.

There is in Connecticut only one effective restraint on spending – the municipal referendum. And Democrats this year intend to mitigate the destructive effects of referendums through property tax reform. And Democrats this year intend to mitigate the destructive effects of referendums through property tax reform.

The "reform" they envision will transfer some payments for education from municipalities to the state, thus relieving property tax payments. But the tax payer will not find relief unless the property tax reform package requires towns to reduce their taxes proportionally, so that net taxes, state and municipal, will not increase. That kind of provision is not likely, because state lawmakers do not wish to interfere with town sovereignty.

The property tax reform packages presently being offered will “relieve” only spendthrift politicians who never met a tax cut or a spending cut they liked. Towns have been able to reject punishing budgets through referendums, but there is no state budget referendum. The additional money moving from state taxpayers to municipal budgets – about 10 percent more in state aid to towns, the bulk of which is spent on education – will not be subject to referendum. And that ten percent solution will relieve town administrators who have seen their budgets shot down in referendums by an aroused citizenry.

An effective rallying cry for a Republican Party comfortable with Republican ideas this year might be: No property tax reform without a state referendum.

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