October 1, 2012

Tale of two plans offers contrasts

Last week's events presented a sharp contrast in the way two of Hartford's most visible chief executives handle budget problems. And the comparison isn't reassuring for taxpayers.

It's unlikely either Gov. Dannel P. Malloy or University of Hartford President Walter Harrison enjoyed the presentations they made to their stakeholders.

Malloy rallied his top lieutenants in the face of news that the state was already $27 million in the red for the fiscal year that's barely a quarter old. He pointed to the administration's accomplishments:

• Concessions wrestled from state employee unions;

• Consolidation of departments from 81 to 60;

• A 14.4 percent reduction in executive branch management jobs;

• Technology that moves paperwork faster.

But, he told the frontline managers, "We still have a long, long, long way to go. I know it."

Yes, it's hard to get out of the hole by spending more and missing revenue goals. Despite all Team Malloy's real accomplishments, the facts are that taxpayers got socked with the largest hike in history, spending went up 5.5 percent and the state remains deeply in the red.

So what's a governor to do? Faced with a similar situation at the start of his term, Malloy raised taxes and spending. And the resulting overall situation isn't appreciably better. Connecticut has unemployment above the national average; housing prices are sliding at a rate that makes us the worst in the U.S.; the unfunded retirement costs are among the highest in the nation and the operating budget doesn't work.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Just a few blocks west, Harrison was pondering a troubling financial situation too. The cost of attending the University of Hartford — tuition, fees, books, room and board — had topped $48,000 and going higher was a competitive risk in the higher education marketplace. At the same time, the demand for high salaries, program improvements and capital expenses continued to grow.

Harrison set in motion a task force of faculty and staff to fully review the situation and recommend sweeping adjustments. The goals was not to slash the budget, rather it was to do better with the same budget.

There's ample room to potshot the results. We're fans of the Construction Institute, for example. It fills a need in a hard hit industry sector and we hope it can be sustained outside the framework of UHart. Others may argue that "divestment" of the political economy and economics degree programs or a host of performance arts programs or the entrepreneurial studies degree will diminish the university as a whole. The point is that it's all a fruitful, campus-wide debate that Harrison has orchestrated under the umbrella concept that the university has to change to grow. Just adding costs and fees is a road to nowhere. The university can't be all things to all people and it's time to make some tough choices.

Both Harrison and Malloy are in for some tough days and weeks ahead. But Harrison should soon be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Once the changes are made, the University of Hartford will be stronger. Malloy, on the other hand, has nothing but bad road ahead. Another tax increase seems as difficult as getting the legislature to cut anything from the budget. Yet money has to come from somewhere to stabilize the ship of state.

Perhaps one of the investments the University of Hartford could make is a new course in the Barney School, taught by Harrison, on fiscal responsibility and management. There seems a ready client base over at the Capitol.

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