Time for New Pitching in Connecticut
By Richard C. Breeden
Next week, Connecticut voters will make critical choices for the future. We are certain to get a new Governor, and the stakes couldn’t be higher when it comes to which party wins control the legislature where taxing and spending decisions are made. It is time give the Republican players a chance at bat.
I had the privilege of serving in the White House under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Both Presidents understood that both parties have good ideas for making the country better. They stuck to their principles, but they also believed that democracy inherently requires finding workable compromises that everyone can live with, even if not their first choice. President Bush always tried to find avenues for bridging differences, not accentuating them. He thought that bipartisan solutions would work better and last longer as both parties would have an ownership stake in the result. Everyone in his White House knew their job was to work across the aisle whenever possible. I believe history will say we accomplished a great deal of good that has stood the test of time.
I mention this background because I don’t approach the question of change in Connecticut with an attitude that every Democrat is bad, or that every Republican is automatically better. However, everyone who holds power on behalf of the public should be accountable for the results they achieve, or fail to achieve. Prolonged one-party State government should carry the highest burden to justify, since it is exclusive rather than inclusive of every point of view.
Here in Connecticut, our State legislature has been controlled completely by the Democrat party for an astounding 24 of the past 26 years. Indeed, Connecticut students graduating from high school next year have never ever lived in a time when both houses of the State legislature were not controlled by Democrats.
With Democrats wielding total control in Hartford for eight years, and controlling the legislature for multiple decades, the question for voters is “How have they done?” Have we built a more prosperous economy, or are things worse?
Is the State financially stable and able to carry out its promises? Are people and businesses moving into the State, or out? These are vital questions, and Democrats in the legislature necessarily own accountability for the answers.
Today, the State may be in its worst financial condition ever. Hit hard by the financial crisis and subsequent recession in 2008, unlike every other state, Connecticut has yet to rebound. Indeed, it ranks 50th out of 50 in job creation during that period, hardly an envious starting point.
When I moved to Connecticut 40 years ago, Connecticut had no income tax at all. Eventually politicians pushed an income tax through the legislature, supposedly to stabilize the State’s finances. But, stability is not what resulted, though not for lack of taxation.
Connecticut’s citizens today pay one of the highest income tax rates in the country, on top of property taxes, death and gift taxes, and dozens and dozens of other specialized taxes. Despite that, spending has outpaced revenues by tens of billions of dollars. The state Commission On Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth recently estimated Connecticut’s long term obligations now represent approximately a $100 billion burden for taxpayers. Most of that results from over $55 billion in unfunded pensions and retiree medical costs for State employees. No wonder that the nonpartisan State Data Lab awarded Connecticut a financial grade of “F”. Retirement benefit costs and debt payments represented 17 percent of the budget’s General Fund a decade ago, but last year ate up over 28 percent of the General Fund even before the Federal Reserve began pushing interest rates significantly higher.
Since Republicans last controlled even one house of the legislature in 1996, Hartford has been flooded with tax revenues. We have spent all the money, but we haven’t fixed our roads and highways, built the world’s best public education system, or even come close to funding our State pension plans. Looking forward, our indebtedness will seriously constrain what Connecticut can do in attacking income inequality, or in addressing needs in higher education, health care, child nutrition, elder care, recreation and many other areas that address vital social needs. Just since 2010, tuition and fees for in-state residents attending UConn rose 35%, while costs to attend Connecticut’s community colleges rose 23% according to a report in the CT Mirror. So, even now our debt load is freezing many young people out of a higher education, which is hardly a formula for reducing income inequality.
If voters stick with a one-party monopoly in Hartford, they will essentially be sticking with a pitcher who can’t throw strikes. If we want to grow out of our debt pressures, we can’t do it while being last in job creation or economic growth. We need financial prudence so we stop digging our own hole deeper. We need to promote economic growth to provide opportunity and revenues, and we can’t regulate our way into growth. We need social justice so everyone has a stake in a better Connecticut. Trying to find a lasting compromise without balancing all three components would be unlikely — like trying to lose weight without exercising or cutting calories.
So, we must ask ourselves whether the same one-party group that has made so many unfortunate decisions in the past should have its monopoly on power extended? Or, should we perhaps try changing the players on the field?
Political parties have trouble acknowledging when their ideology doesn’t work out. This is true whether it is progressives or conservatives – politicians hang onto their illusions even as evidence mounts on the need for a course correction. Even worse, when things go badly, politicians often conclude they should double down on their policies. But, failed policies don’t get better with time, and the ballot box is an essential corrective mechanism.
Last year the State’s budget woes led the governing party to try to revive and expand tolls on driving in Connecticut. This plan would have taxed citizens whenever they drove to work, a soccer game, or to visit Grandmother. Happily, responsible Democrats were willing to cross the line to help Republicans block that idea for the moment. However, if we stay on the path of fiscal decline, before long that idea will resurface along with others that might be worse. Maybe we will all end up having to strap on EZ passes so we can be taxed when we walk the dog.
Before we run out of time, we need to move with alacrity to find lasting solutions to our fiscal mess. Last year, the Republicans in the Legislature joined with a group of courageous Democrats to pass a bipartisan budget. This may have been the most significant bipartisan action in the entire country. Though the Governor fought to stop the process, fair minded people from both parties came together to agree on core principles of fiscal responsibility. That budget didn’t go far enough to end our troubles, but it was an important start. It showed we are capable of uniting to protect the future of our State.
To build on that effort, Connecticut voters have to be prepared to demand more change from Hartford. If we fill our legislature with more talented people from both parties, like our own Senator Scott Frantz and the others who developed and then enacted last year’s bipartisan budget, there may be no limit to what we can achieve. But that effort has to start with eliminating the Democrat monopoly rule in Connecticut’s legislature.
By empowering Republicans to lead the legislature, or at least to share power, voters would show they are fed up with promises not backed with action. By refusing to be taken for granted, voters can force change that could turn our legislature into a factory of ideas, and a powerful force for good. Individual voters hold the key to making our legislature a forum where we can start developing long term solutions to our problems. The hour is late, and the time to start fixing our problems is right now. Vote!
Mr. Breeden was an Assistant to the President under President George H.W. Bush, and later served as the 24th Chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. He is the founding Chair of Breeden Capital Management LLC in Greenwich.