December 3, 2012

Budget cutting is messy work

The process of budget cutting ranks up there with rendering the hog. All the consumer wants to see is the neatly wrapped bacon, not the oinking and the bloodshed.

Yet there was plenty of oinking and allusions to bloodshed last week as the state budget process started in earnest.

There was the mandatory call for bipartisanship followed by the programmed Republican rebuke that the governor won't even open a dialogue.

Then there was the rescission phase in which Team Malloy searched under all the cushions and totaled up $170 million in money that largely wasn't going to be spent anyway.

To be fair, there are some real dollars being whacked by Team Malloy. Arts grants, higher education and the state's safety net all took hits. But the charade had its comic moments.

We were particularly amused by the attention to detail that resulted in reporting that $4 will be trimmed from the Cash Management Improvement Act account in the Office of Policy and Management and $5 will be eliminated from the equipment account at the Department of Aging.

While every penny counts, that may be taking the old saying a bit too literally. If the folks at Aging find they're crippled without that stapler, please call us here at the Hartford Business Journal and we'll leap to your rescue.

The next phase gets tougher. The legislature must sign off on another $200 million or so in cuts. And there's no way those cuts won't come without a whole lot of oinking from the pigs at the funding trough. Our bet is that legislators will find enough ways to delay expenditures — how long can you put off buying tombstones for veterans before you lose your credibility as supportive of veterans? — and reclassify money to forestall any serious nastiness during the holiday season.

There's also a good chance all involved will use the special session as a time for floating trial balloons ahead of the real budget cutting that will have to take place in the regular session. Look for draconian ideas for consolidation, user fees and even municipal aid and education cuts. The legislature then will seem reasonable later when they withhold pennies instead of dollars from some programs.

There's even likely to be some bashing of the federal government, which some many belatedly notice is also broke, and some bad ideas for new taxes on business. This is Connecticut, after all.

What's needed, of course, is a meaningful conversation about where we as a state are overextended and where we can cut back. In jurisdictions with the initiative system, the taxpayers would likely be advancing some ideas for the ballot.

But here in the Land of Steady Habits, we really don't want to hear from the taxpayers because we apparently trust a one-party system of government. That hasn't really worked out for California but, hey, maybe we'll get lucky. Or, perhaps State Treasurer Denise Nappier should have run out and bought some PowerBall tickets.

In the absence of a meaningful civic dialogue, we're left to rely on Governor Malloy and his team for leadership. So far, they haven't given a lot of hints that they have a long-term strategy but deep in the bowels of the Capitol, the gnomes are hard at work on a 2013-14 budget scheme that somehow has to bridge about a $2 billion shortfall.

Time is ticking down. The preliminaries are all in order. It's almost show time. Let the pig races begin. Last slowest programs over the line are invited for breakfast.

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