Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Is Malloy Serious?

Speaking before the Bridgeport Regional Business Council at a lunchtime program attended by 325 people, Governor Dannel Malloy, according to a story in the Connecticut Post, claimed “to be more fiscally conservative than the last ‘two or three governors,’ Republicans John Rowland and M. Jodi Rell, as well as Lowell P. Weicker Jr., an independent.”

It is not reported that any of the business people present guffawed.

If one judges by deeds rather than words, which is how one should measure the acts of governors, none of the governors preceding Mr. Malloy were fiscal conservatives.

The growth in state spending since Mr. Weicker – here described as an “independent,” though during his career in politics Mr. Weicker preferred the term Republican “Maverick,” the self aggrandizing, boastful title of his autobiography – suggests that the three governors preceding Mr. Malloy were liberal spenders, though some of them seemed to talk a good conservative game.

It is true that one of them, former Governor John Rowland, described himself as a “firewall” that prevented spending from increasing at a more rapid rate. The term “firewall” was a metaphor that referred back to Mr. Weicker’s quaint notion that an income tax levied during his administration would have the same effect on Connecticut’s economy as gas thrown on a fire. It did. During his first election as governor, Mr. Rowland vowed to repeal Mr. Weicker’s income tax. He didn’t.

The last Democratic budget under former Governor William O’Neill was about $7.5 billion. The present budget under Mr. Malloy is about $20 billion. In other words, within the time frame of three governors, two of whom were Republicans and one an anti-Republican Maverick, the budget nearly tripled in size. During this period of putative “fiscal conservative” governors, an income tax was levied, pension funds were raided, the income tax later was made more progressive, budget deficits were paid through bonding, and the dominant Democratic General Assembly mucked though a period of accelerating indebtedness by entertaining itself with the notion that Connecticut had a revenue rather than a spending problem. These are not the identifying marks of fiscal conservativism.

Perhaps what Mr. Malloy wanted to convey to the business men and women before him in Bridgeport and elsewhere in the state was that, unlike his predecessors, his budget message was a serious one.

Mr. Malloy’s message is that taxes will be increased by $1.8 billion and spending will be cut by $2 billion. But what is the objective measure of a serious proposal? Surely it is the conformity of words and deeds. We know a man is serious in what he says if he does what he says. It is fairly easy for a Democratic governor working cheek by jowl with a Democratic legislature to raise taxes; indeed, it has been easy for Mr. Malloy’s predecessors, none of whom were Democrats, to raise taxes with the concurrence of a dominant Democratic legislature – which is how the pre-income tax budget rose to its present unsustainable level so quickly. Those who believed that Connecticut had been suffering from a revenue rather than a spending problem were always willing – eager even – to alleviate the state’s agony through tax increases.

But spending cuts? Now, there’s a problem. Mr. Malloy’s spending cut proposal went down the throats state employee union leaders like a porcupine with its quills extended. Some union leaders, reaching for the last jar of peanut butter in an empty pantry, hope to settle the state’s budget deficit by making the state’s progressive income tax more progressive for so called “millionaires” who earn more than $200,000 per year. Most liberals would be satisfied with an arrangement in which spending cuts are short term and temporary while tax increases are permanent. The Brights who write commentary for Connecticut’s left of center media are convinced that the spending cuts proposed by Mr. Malloy cannot be wrung from state workers, Mr. Malloy insisting there is no third way: Connecticut must be both compassionate and competitive.

And so the battle for the future – never has it appeared more bleak – is now joined at a time when a 70 percent majority in Connecticut, according to the first Quinnipiac University Poll taken in the new administration, are “dissatisfied with the way things are going in the state, and no elected official in [the] survey has an approval rating above 50 percent."

The same poll shows voters supporting a wage freeze for state employees (68 percent) and layoffs (50 percent) in the absence of concessions by union leaders who, if past practice is a guide to the future, almost certainly will spurn permanent spending cuts. Of those polled, 48 percent say the Malloy plan increases taxes on the wealthy too little. But Mr. Malloy is unwilling to build tax bridges connecting Connecticut and contiguous states over which entrepreneurial capital may travel into the outstretched hands of Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and Democratic Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo, as well as job poachers in states in which spending spirals will be less destructive to businesses.

The unfolding battle will be won by the party that is most resolute, and the answer to the question “Is Mr. Malloy serious?” will not be long in coming.

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