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Economists, Executives, Officials Share Ideas On Connecticut Economy

LYNN DOAN

November 22, 2008

First came the easy questions. How should Connecticut bolster its economy? What investments are most important?

Education, transportation, small business and energy, they said.

Then came the hard question: If we're going to make those investments, where should the state now facing an estimated $356.3 million budget deficit cut back?

Some of the state's top economists, business executives and state officials, meeting Friday to search for ideas on how to heal the state's ailing economy, had some broad-stroke replies:

Regionalize some town services, like schools and police. Bring back county government to accomplish it. Cut state employees' benefits. Postpone new road construction and "nonessential" projects.

Those and other ideas flowed at meeting room at the Berlin headquarters of Northeast Utilities as the annual policy conference of the Connecticut Economic Resource Center Inc. broke into small discussion groups.

Matthew Nemerson, president and chief executive officer of the Connecticut Technology Council, led discussion in one of several breakout groups at the conference. He said he pushed attendees to make hard choices.

"We can't do everything here. We're all saying nice, good things we all want," Nemerson said. "But every state now has a deficit. Connecticut has to do one or two things really well. So if you really had to make a choice, if a gun was put to your head, what would you do?"

The conference's focus on difficult decisions comes as the state's budget spirals into the red, with a deficit now projected at $6 billion over the next two fiscal years, starting next July.

So if Connecticut wants to attract higher-paying jobs and nurture a skilled workforce, industry leaders said, the state has to be willing to make some sacrifices.

Recommendations from Friday's discussions will be consolidated by the economic resource center and presented to the state legislature at the upcoming session.

A few of the ideas for cuts took some by surprise. One group recommended that the state re-evaluate the amount of money it sets aside for open space and energy conservation. More than one group said the state budget for prisons needs a second look.

"Some of these ideas are definitely not politically popular," said Michele Lipe, assistant director of planning for South Windsor, who participated in one of the group discussions.

Industry leaders and government officials agreed Friday that the stage is set for some unpopular decisions.

State Sen. Gary D. LeBeau, D-East Hartford, co-chairman of the commerce committee, said he will present some of the findings to the special legislative session scheduled Monday, when the General Assembly is expected to vote on a plan to cut spending and collect delinquent taxes to close the budget gap.

"A lot of the things you said were really right on," LeBeau said to those attending Friday's economic conference. "The future of the state is so much tied to our economy, and this is a tremendous opportunity we don't want to waste."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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