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Lowell Weicker, As Blunt And As Feisty As Ever, Rips State For Spending Too Much; Calls Gov. Rell "Disinterested''

Christopher Keating

June 17, 2010

As blunt and as feisty as ever, former Gov. Lowell P. Weicker ripped the state Thursday for failing to tackle the state's fiscal problems by spending and borrowing too much money.

Weicker decried the practice - passed this year by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the Democratic-controlled legislature - of borrowing money for operating expenses, which prompted a Wall Street agency to recently downgrade the state's bond rating. The legislature took the extremely rare step of borrowing money even before the fiscal year began, and the state would have had a projected deficit of about $1 billion for the year that starts July 1 if there had been no borrowing.

"All of this is insane fiscal practice,'' Weicker said Thursday. "If various elements of the Connecticut government are afraid to say so for one reason or another, I'm not. It should be said, and that's my purpose of being here today. ... Really where we are is there are no more easy alternatives. The trust funds have been run dry. The rainy day funds have been depleted. The bond ratings - my gosh - when I saw those reports from Fitch and others and the lowering of our rating. Do you understand what that costs the state of Connecticut? People moan and groan about taxes. That's a tax. Every step we go down means we have to pay more to borrow that money.''

In a rare public appearance, Weicker spoke to more than 100 mayors and first selectmen in front of the annual meeting of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities at a Cromwell hotel. About a dozen protestors greeted him outside the hotel, but he said that was far fewer than more than 40,000 citizens who stormed the Capitol lawn to protest the creation of the state income tax in 1991.

A former U.S. Senator for 18 years, Weicker is probably best known for creating the income tax soon after he became governor in 1991. He was both praised and trashed for that position, and his poll ratings plummeted as the recession continued in Connecticut in the early 1990s.

Now walking with a cane at the age of 79, Weicker remained seated for more than one hour in the hotel ballroom as he delivered a speech and then answered questions from mayors and reporters. He received three standing ovations from the mayors.

There is one overriding answer, Weicker said, to solve the state's budget deficit, which is projected at more than $3 billion for the 2012 fiscal year.

"Cut spending - and I mean big time,'' Weicker said. "The spending cuts have to come, and they've got to be huge. And we've got to stop bonding. And I mean just about bring it to an end. We've reached our limit. We're way past it. ... Lowering of spending has to be the major consideration at this point.''

"So let an old man - I'm 79 - and let a man who is out of politics - I'm not running for anything - assure you that it's going to be a very cold shower for a very drunk state,'' Weicker told the crowd. "And that is what is necessary, and you know it and I know it. We can't fake it any more.''

He added, "Well, I'm not saying that spending cuts are going to be pleasant. The problem is the bill has to be paid. Otherwise, the situation gets worse, not better. ... This is what we had to do back in 1991.''

After moving numerous times throughout Connecticut and Virginia, Weicker currently lives and votes in Old Lyme.

Rell's spokesman, Rich Harris, responded, "Former Governor Weicker may have moved out of Connecticut and been out of politics for a number of years now, but it's obvious he is still not shy to offer his opinion. Unfortunately, because he has been out of the state and out of the political game, he seems to be out of the loop. He has missed Governor Rell's persistent efforts over the last two years to cut state spending, fight tax increases and reduce borrowing. He has also missed the $700 million concession agreement she negotiated with state employee unions.''

Harris added, "The only thing the governor is truly disinterested in is uninformed opinions.''

Weicker is backing Democrat Ned Lamont for governor and held a fundraiser last Sunday on his behalf. Their relationship dates back before 1990 when Weicker was running for governor as an independent candidate and Lamont was running for the state Senate in Greenwich. Lamont faced off against the incumbent, Sen. Emil "Bennie'' Benvenuto, who lost the Republican nomination to then-Rep. William H. Nickerson and instead ran under the "A Connecticut Party'' banner with Weicker. When Benvenuto announced his support for Weicker that year, the Greenwich Republicans - including his longtime close friend, former Sen. Michael Morano - quickly turned against him and endorsed Nickerson. Lamont placed third in that three-way battle, and Nickerson went on to serve in the state Senate until recently.

A Greenwich resident at the time, Weicker was living at historic Applejack Farm on upper Lake Avenue and followed the state Senate race closely because of his ties to Benvenuto. After Benvenuto lost, Weicker named him as a deputy commissioner for veteran's affairs in 1991 in the new Weicker administration.

Lamont ran for state Senate as a fiscally conservative Democrat - having broken with his fellow Democrats and joined with the Republicans on Greenwich's Board of Estimate and Taxation in various votes to reduce the town's spending.

Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, a Republican who is running for governor in a three-way primary, said Weicker has analyzed the problems accurately, but does not have the correct solution.

"Governor Weicker is correct that making large-scale spending cuts -- as I have proposed -- is the only way to dig our state out of this economic mess,'' Fedele said. "But the father of the income tax is gravely mistaken in thinking that the big-spending Democratic policies of Ned Lamont will help us to achieve that goal. If cutting spending is the answer, then Ned Lamont cannot be the solution."

Regarding the state budget, Weicker focused chiefly on cutting spending and bonding - instead of tax hikes.

"I don't have any specific suggestions for a general tax increase,'' Weicker said, declining to outline a series of tax increases. He never mentioned any changes in the cigarette, gasoline or estate taxes, which have been discussed at the state Capitol. "Has it ever occurred to anybody - with all the abuse I've taken over the years and I don't mind it because it goes with the job - you think any one of us goes out there figuring we're going to be more popular with a tax increase? You've got to be crazy. I didn't want an income tax. Nobody wants to pay more. Everyone knows that. That's rule number one.''

When questioned by a local official from Madison, Weicker said he did not have all the answers. Weicker had called for major cuts in spending, but he said at the same time that the state government should pay for all the costs for public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. That would require billions of additional dollars in state spending, and the local official said he was not sure how those figures match up.

"They don't,'' Weicker responded. "I'm just trying to throw out ideas to be debated.''

Regarding his advice to politicians who are running for 187 seats in the state legislature this fall, Weicker said, "Forget the party. That's my advice to men and women who are going to run in this election. Forget it. ... You're going to have to run, I think, if you're going to be honest, against your party on some issues. You've got to value the state of Connecticut more than your political party.''

His other advice to young people is : "Don't be afraid to lose because if you're not afraid to lose, you're the most dangerous man or woman on the field. You can say the truth. ... Maybe if you'll tell the truth, yeah, maybe you'll lose. But maybe, and I think this is also true, you'll win.''

During a question-and-answer period, Weicker issued his opinions on a wide variety of issues.

Regarding local property taxes, Weicker said, "It's murderous. We've got to do something about it.''

He also took a shot at Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a well-known Democrat who is running for the U.S. Senate against longtime Greenwich resident Linda McMahon. Weicker serves on the board of directors of World Wrestling Entertainment, where McMahon is the former chief executive officer. Weicker, though, said earlier in the race that he would have voted for U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, who has since dropped out of the race.

"The attitudes of the state have not been particularly business friendly,'' Weicker said when asked about economic development. "I don't mean to criticize any one individual, but I'm saying there's an awful lot of lawsuits thrown around the state of Connecticut on business. So the question would be asked: why would you move to Connecticut?''

Former state Sen. Joe Markley and a band of protestors were holding signs at the driveway entrance to the hotel on Thursday morning as Weicker drove by with his longtime aide, Tom Dudchik. Dudchik now operates a popular political web site. Markley and former Sen. Tom Scott were among the key leaders against the creation of the state income tax.

"We already know what Lowell would do," Markley said in a statement. "He'd lie to get elected, ignore the clear will of the people, and raise taxes massively, killing the state economy. In the twenty years since Weicker and his legislative stooges pushed through the income tax, Connecticut has ranked dead last nationally in economic growth. I can think of no man in history who has harmed our state more than Lowell Weicker. His insistence on creating a massive new tax instead of cutting state expenditures encouraged the reckless spending that led to our current fiscal crisis.''

Markley added, "Shameless as Lowell Weicker always has been, I'm still surprised he has the nerve to give advice--and I'm amazed that our municipal leaders consider him worth consulting. The answer to our current fiscal crisis is the same as it was in 1991: we must reduce state spending, which -- adjusted for inflation and measured per capita -- has quintupled since 1970."

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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