The Connecticut economy was spiraling downward before the current recession. It will continue to do so after it is over unless our elected leaders enact fundamental structural changes in state government. Certainly there are immediate, short-term challenges that must be addressed: Current revenues are not meeting expectations by as much as $600 million and multibillion-dollar deficits are predicted through 2014.
But these immediate challenges pale in comparison to long-term problems, which will still remain after the recession:
•Well-educated young adults are leaving the state in droves, eviscerating the skilled workforce, decreasing our income tax base and reducing our attractiveness to employers.
•Elderly residents make up a disproportionately large population segment, yet the higher level of social services they require are not adequately funded by an increasingly low-wage workforce.
•Our massive, race-based educational achievement gap means that many poor, urban people of color remain mired in poverty, require high levels of state services and continue to be at risk for criminality, incarceration, health problems and premature death.
•Chronic problems in transportation and widespread shortages of affordable housing make Connecticut unattractive to both employers and highly skilled young people who might otherwise want to locate here.
•Streamlining in the defense industry and consolidation in the insurance industry will result in further Connecticut job losses.
These problems are well-documented. They are not new. Connecticut will become an increasingly poorer state, unable to meet the basic needs of its residents unless our political leaders confront these issues with long-term strategic thinking and action.
Members of an informal statewide group of clergy have been meeting and offer the following New Year's advice to our elected officials:
Love thy neighbor. The partisan sniping and ideological brinksmanship that characterized last year's endless budget debates and which are beginning to rear their ugly heads now are at best a distraction, at worst a monumental failure of leadership. Please do not sacrifice Connecticut's economic future for the sake of winning short-term political battles against each other.
Replace political posturing with courage. The challenges we face require immeasurably difficult, painful decisions. You cannot lead us through these times without courage.
Promote a culture of responsibility. Where cuts to vital services must be made, be clear about institutions that can take responsibility in the absence of state funding. Think broadly and creatively about public-private partnerships. Where taxes must be raised — and there is no doubt in our minds that comprehensive tax reform is essential — be clear that everyone, individuals and corporations alike, must share the burden fairly.
Trust that we are stronger together. Accept the reality that Connecticut's long-standing home rule system is unsustainable. There is widespread agreement that regional cost-sharing will lead to greater government efficiency, yet we still lack the will to abandon home rule. Regionalism's day has come.
Attend to fundamentals. Invest wisely and abundantly in education, affordable housing and transportation. Such investment is essential to boosting the fortunes of our most vulnerable and marginalized citizens. Skilled workers and employers will seek to locate in a state that takes these fundamentals seriously.
Resist false dualisms. We often see business interests pitted against the interests of poor people, as if the two are mutually exclusive. The reality is that the two are intimately related and cannot be effectively addressed if they are forced to compete against each other in the halls of government.
Have faith in the people of Connecticut. Lead with courage, and we will follow with courage. Put aside partisan differences and attend seriously to the deep structural problems in our economic life, and you will find us willing to sacrifice. Promote a culture of respect, decency, cooperation and caring, and we will strive to make it real.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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