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State's Governors Often Have Had To Deliver Bad Budget News

Second look

By CHRISTOPHER KEATING

January 11, 2009

With the state facing soaring budget deficits in the next two years projected to be as high as $2.6 billion next year and $3.3 billion the following year state officials say this is the worst fiscal time they can remember.

What's more, the dire projections are expected to get even worse in the coming days, when many of the state's wealthiest residents will be making their quarterly income tax payments, due Jan. 15. Given Wall Street's problems in last year's final quarter, the state undoubtedly will show a huge drop in capital gains.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell's budget director, Robert Genuario, in fact, warned legislators Friday that his office expects to see "a substantial increase in the projected deficit" over the next 10 days.

"The problem is going to get worse before it gets better," he said.

In her State of the State address last week, Rell called the collapse in state revenues and the major slowdown in the economy "scary."

Her words, spoken from the dais in the House of Representatives at the state Capitol, evoked memories of other notable State of the State addresses and budget messages over the past four decades.

One of the most famous in state history was Gov. Ella T. Grasso's "cupboard is bare" speech, delivered to the General Assembly on Feb. 13, 1975.

A fiscal conservative Democrat, Grasso proposed an increase in the state sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent and an increase in the corporate business tax from 8 percent to 9 percent. In addition, she called for hiking the state's capital gains tax from 6 percent to 7 percent and boosting the cigarette tax to 25 cents per pack from 21 cents.

"The cupboard, to be sure, is very bare," Grasso told lawmakers at the time. "The document before you tonight is in every sense of the word an austerity budget. ... The budget message is also a sad legacy of bad budgeting, of unrealistic figures and of deficit. The failure to face these problems squarely has resulted in a budget for this fiscal year that leaves the state in a deteriorating financial position."

The 1970s were rough. Four years before Grasso's grim speech, Republican Gov. Thomas Meskill delivered a similarly dire budget message on Feb. 16, 1971, to the General Assembly.

"It is my unpleasant task to tell you and the people of Connecticut that the condition in which I find the state makes an increase in taxes inescapable," Meskill said.

"I cannot cast a hopeful eye on next year with new programs and services. Because things are the way they are, I must cast a doleful eye on the past and tell the people of Connecticut that their government must demand more of them while finding itself unable to return much more in the way of services."

Meskill continued, "I do not deceive myself that this budget message will make the people of Connecticut happy. It does not make me happy. It makes me angry. ... The coming year will be a year of sacrifice. The piper must be paid, and the excesses of the recent past carry a high price tag."

For many adults, the biggest fiscal problem in recent memory led to the creation of the state income tax in 1991 under Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr.

Weicker's typically pull-no-punches State of the State address in January 1991 provided a sober message that, perhaps, foreshadowed his dramatic announcement one month later that he would fight to create the income tax.

"You in this chamber and those who sent me here expect nothing short of total candor in dealing with the problems and opportunities of our state," Weicker told legislators. "So let the message of this day be simple and bold. No more sacrifices postponed. No more decision ducked. No more lowest-common-denominator solutions. A deficit has taken control of our lives, coloring all else as it climbs beyond comprehension, sapping our confidence, humbling our visions."

Weicker continued, "We take our licks so that we can restore the caring and quality of life that is Connecticut, unmatched anywhere, hard to define, but a treasure worth every moment of our commitment and spirit during this session.

"I can assure you that when I return here in February, we will all be tested for courage and constancy. The state of the state is rudderless. Well, that's for you and I, if we choose to perform. And we were chosen to perform."

This year, yet another governor and group of lawmakers were chosen to perform. The curtain officially rises on Feb. 4, when Rell will deliver her budget to the legislature. Stay tuned.

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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