STATE BUDGET STALEMATE • Months of partisan wrangling offer little promise of progress
January 24, 2010
Count this as a vote of no confidence in the leaders of the General Assembly.
For more than a year, our legislators have faced a budget problem that required them to surmount partisan bickering, forsake allegiance to special-interest groups and rise to a higher level of statesmanship than they have exhibited so far.
House Speaker Christopher Donovan and Senate Majority Leader Donald Williams, with their lieutenants, have proved adept at keeping most of their fellow Democrats in line as they refused to confront the spending cuts and substantial restructuring needed to keep the state out of the red and to position Connecticut for a more financially secure future. But party discipline is not a substitute for vision.
Last winter, the legislative leaders were slow to react to an imploding economy, saying they had to wait for Gov. M. Jodi Rell to present her budget plan.
The governor, who exhibited her own shortsightedness by resisting the obvious need to raise taxes along with reducing spending, had the thankless job of making cuts to balance the budget. Many of her choices were rejected by the legislative leadership.
The governor and legislative leaders spent months talking past each other and finally brought in a budget that was late and woefully unbalanced before the last page was printed. The budget that became law in September was $500 million in the hole by October. Closing this gap led to both sides agreeing to defer $100 million in contributions to the state employees pension fund (another form of borrowing against the future).
The Democrats voted for $60 million in budget cuts and sweeps of funds from dedicated accounts. They also backed keeping $40 million in taxes by delaying a change in the estate tax rules. The governor vetoed both ideas.
In addition to these proposed cuts, the Democrats' deficit reduction plan also relied on securing more federal funds. In short, it slipped into the realm of magical budget balancing. It certainly failed to move the state any closer to the big-picture restructuring needed to address the nearly $6 billion deficit projected for 2013.
Gov. Rell, although more realistic about cutting spending, has been hemmed in by her unwise two-year no-layoff agreement with most of the state's unionized workers. She has also been slow to back tax increases, which must be part of any well-considered budget package.
She managed to win the public relations battle against the increasingly shrill legislative leadership, but this Pyrrhic victory did nothing to create the kind of creative and cooperative atmosphere required to bring the state through this historic recession.
Perhaps, now that the governor has announced her retirement, she will be freed from her partisan posturing and will be able to use her final months in office to help shape a government that is unafraid to make hard choices about reducing the number of departments, commissions and agencies, and to confront the looming fiscal problems posed by the state's debt and unfunded obligations.
The legislative leaders must be judged on their records. They failed to recognize the scope of the state's fiscal troubles and to put aside their partisan cloaks. They failed to make difficult budget cuts and structural changes in government that are vital now and for the state's fiscal health in years to come.
That history raises serious questions about their ability or willingness to be effective leaders in the session that begins Feb. 3. The ranks of the Democrats include many thoughtful legislators, some of whom unsuccessfully tried to introduce alternative budget proposals last year, who could lead the state and their party well.
The contentious relationship between the current leaders in the General Assembly and the governor seems fated to continue, risking the same paralyzing stasis of the last year. With unrest rising from all the state's municipalities and a legislative election in the fall, the legislature needs fresh ideas and better leadership.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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