For decades state and municipal elected officials in Connecticut have had no trouble telling the public that it should suffer a pay cut so that raises could be paid to government employees and benefits could be increased for welfare recipients. That attitude has brought the state to its current plight, with state tax revenue collapsing, business stagnating, prosperous people and retirees eagerly moving to lower-taxed states, and young people leaving for better job opportunities elsewhere.
At the state level there is now a glimmer of recognition that something is profoundly wrong, if not quite recognition that the premises of the basic policies by which state government long has been operating are catastrophically mistaken. But at the municipal level there is as yet no such recognition. There is only shrieking and whining from local officials as Governor Malloy proposes to reduce more and more state financial assistance to municipalities as state government’s own revenue declines and as state legislators follow his lead.
This is a shock to municipal officials. They long have understood the ever-increasing money from the state to be the natural order of things, sanctified as property tax relief, though there seldom has been any such relief, the real objective being only to increase the compensation of unionized municipal government employees and to disguise the expense in the state budget as municipal aid.
Even so, all municipal officials must have known that they were operating in large part at state government expense. Thus they should have realized that they would have to share in state government’s misfortune just as they had shared in its fortune. So maybe eventually municipal officials may see that their shrieking and whining will change nothing and that, like all state government’s other dependents, they will be relevant only if they can specify ways of saving money.
Since two-thirds or more of the typical municipal budget goes for the compensation of personnel, that is where municipal savings must start or be enabled, and enabling such savings requires repealing the privileges of the government employee unions. Until municipal officials can not just acknowledge as much but demand it, they will be as useless as all the other special interests that do no more than clamor obliviously for exemption from Connecticut’s hard times.
Municipal officials also will be useless as long as they refuse to draw distinctions and set priorities in spending. For example, while many municipal officials especially resent the governor’s proposal to eliminate grants to suburbs while raising them for cities, no suburban officials will denounce the obvious: that the cities are incompetent and corrupt and function mainly as poverty factories and that their state aid has only facilitated this.
In particular, Hartford’s mayor says his city needs a $50 million increase in aid from state government to avoid bankruptcy, but the city just spent $80 million or so on a frill, a minor-league baseball stadium for stealing New Britain’s team. In effect, Hartford’s mayor is seeking a bailout from the state for the city’s grossest incompetence yet, a bailout that will only encourage more incompetence.
But even as their own state aid is stripped away, suburban officials lack the courage to protest this idiocy and demand that Hartford reform itself and start paying for its mistakes.
Awful as state government’s financial collapse seems, it is necessary to Connecticut’s political reform, if there is to be any reform. Down to its last few dollars, will state government spend them on the public interest or just on pensions and medical insurance for government’s own employees?
Just whom is state government for?
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.