Game Changer? Legislative commission could bring down state costs
Hartford Courant Editorial
May 24, 2013
Is it any wonder that Connecticut is considered a high-cost state?
We have a state government, plus 169 local governments, plus hundreds of regional entities that overlap and bear little relation to each other. And to pay for this redundant mishmash, we rely heavily on property taxes. Indeed, the highest share of taxes paid by businesses in the state — just over a third — is property taxes.
If there is money to be saved by making our quiltwork of government agencies and entities work more efficiently, then the MORE Commission (for Municipal Opportunities & Regional Entities) may be the most interesting thing happening in state government. It could actually bring change.
Why Not One School Calendar?
The M.O.R.E. Commission was created as a Democratic legislative effort three years ago under the chairmanship of then-House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey. It produced a number of useful measures, including a popular grant program for towns that wished to share services. Mr. Sharkey, now House speaker, brought MORE back this year as a bipartisan, bicameral commission, headed by Rep. Timothy Larson of East Hartford.
The commission focused on four areas: municipal taxing, education, regionalism and mandate relief. Though it got a late start, as did everything that wasn't a gun safety bill, the commission heard from 300 people from all walks and sectors. It produced some solid recommendations (and a couple of clunkers) for this year and some very promising direction for the immediate future.
For example, the commission proposes a common school calendar, to be administered by the state's six Regional Educational Service Centers. With a common calendar, it becomes possible to save money on regional bus contracts.
The commission also proposes connecting town halls and other municipal facilities and councils of government to the state's fiber optic Nutmeg Network. It is now used in education, but offers the potential for the regionalization of town back-office functions.
One of the most promising developments is a work in progress, and that is the creation of common service and planning areas.
If all goes well, there will be five to eight service boundaries for the state's major social service agencies — the Department of Social Services, the Department of Children and Families, etc. — and, hopefully, the regional planning agencies. There are now 14 regional planning agencies; five, perhaps corresponding to the state's river drainage areas or congressional districts, would make more sense.
This would not be a return to county government or the elimination of town governments, just a way of delivering some services more economically.
Not all of the MORE proposals are good. For example, MORE proposes the elimination of the state law requiring public notices to be printed in daily newspapers. Yes, it is in The Courant's interest to continue this practice, but it is also in the public interest. More people read newspapers than look at city or state websites, studies indicate.
Also, the commission proposes a gradual elimination, over several years, of the property tax on automobiles, in large part because the tax is unfair. It is indeed unfair: A tax on the same car can be much higher in some cities than in some small and well-off towns. But there is nothing inherently wrong with taxing cars, especially when the state is trying to promote the use of transit.
We think the better step is to create a standard statewide mill rate on cars, and leave it at that. Mr. Sharkey said at a press conference that the commission may decide to do that.
Change is a process. There will be disagreements on certain issues. But if Mr. Sharkey and Mr. Larson can keep the MORE Commission at work over the next few years, this can be a less expensive and more competitive state.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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