Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Gubernatorial Legislative Budget Standoff

Most media outlets in Connecticut have called for a speedy resolution of budget negotiations now being held in camera by the governor, a few Republicans and leaders of the Democratic controlled legislature.

The problem here is that all these so called budget “negotiations” are being held behind closed doors, out of view of the public. So, one must accept at their word conflicting reports of the discussions.

Naturally, there are two widely divergent accounts of the secret meetings.

Here’s what we know: Rell and the Republicans are heavily outnumbered. The Democrats could, if they wished, pass their own preferred budget over Rell’s objections. Indeed, she has challenged them to do just this. It is possible they declined for politically expedient reasons: It was not in their long term interest to present a bill during the regular session in public square.

In the past, Republican governors and the thimble full of Republicans in the legislature have shown themselves to be amenable to pressure from Democrats. But in the past, the question was: How do we spend budget surpluses? Answer -- quickly and thoroughly, without a thought for the morrow.

What makes negotiations different this time is a crippling budget deficit.

Both Republicans and Democrats have staked out their positions: Democrats want little or no cuts in public service, and they want a permanent readjustment upwards in the income tax, so that the so called “rich” -- mini-millionaires now proportionally assuming the brunt of taxes -- will pay more of their “fair share.” They have proposed a crippling 30% increase in corporation taxes. A good part of the deficit, in the meantime, has been caused precisely by the disproportion in tax payments surrendered by Connecticut’s Gold Coast malefactors of great wealth: The recession has diminished their income, and consequently they have ended up paying less in taxes, resulting in less revenue for the state.

To offset this loss and to prevent a spiraling increase in spending, Republicans want more budget cuts.

The Democrats’ first public offer was to raise taxes to cover the deficit. Presently the Democrats want to boost taxes and fees by $1.8 billion; Rell wants to raise taxes and fees by more than $500 million.

Their fish wasn’t going to fly, and the Democrats knew it when they made the offer.

In the meantime, after the clock had been run out and the fiscal year ended, public negotiations gave way to secret negotiations.

At this point, the discussion moved from open legislative hearings to secret conclaves. Neither the public nor the tribunes of the people were admitted to the proceedings. As a result, the media became dependent on reports leaked from various press offices.

Amazingly, the “right to know” media has not called for an end to these secret negotiations. Indeed, it has encouraged them. These are the same people who scream and stamp their feet when the public’s business is conducted in private.

Republicans, never too wise in the ways of politics, should move in the future to end all non-public bipartisan budget discussions. It borders on insanity to put pressure through freedom of information complaints on private negotiations of public business while at the same time winking at back room budget negotiations. The budget touches the lives and liberties of more people in Connecticut than any other single legislative effort, and responsible media in the state should be ashamed to support any process that makes such decisions less transparent than, say, jury deliberations.

After the backroom doors are jarred open, Republicans should insist on a state budget referendum. There is already a precedent for budget referenda in towns across the state. If budget cap busting politicians are unwilling to control costs, let the public, not yet owned by special interests, have a hand in it.

“Together,we can,” would be a nifty campaign slogan.

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