October 16, 2017

Budget gridlock a necessary recentering of fiscal policy

Greg Bordonaro Editor

Connecticut remains the only state in America without an enacted budget, leaving outside observers and many residents to believe the General Assembly is as dysfunctional as Congress.

But while both systems of government are paralyzed by gridlock, it can be argued that Connecticut's inability to pass a state budget on time is actually a necessary, even healthy, recentering of fiscal policy, whereas the federal government's inability to get just about anything done is symptomatic of a dysfunctional political party (the GOP controls both the legislative and executive branches) led by a president who has increasingly shown himself to be unfit for office.

Since 2011, one-party rule in Connecticut has failed to produce some of the long-term fixes that would help solve our state's fiscal crisis, including stricter spending and borrowing caps and giving the legislature more power to vote on union contracts.

Now that Republicans share power in the Senate and have narrowed Democrats' majority in the House, the tide has begun to shift, giving the GOP its first chance at governing since Gov. M. Jodi Rell left office earlier this decade.

The shifting political headwinds were bound to create disruption, and in September the House and Senate sent shockwaves throughout the State Capitol by approving a Republican-proposed budget. Malloy has since vetoed the measure, leaving the state in political gridlock.

But while many have criticized lawmakers for not coming together on a spending plan, Connecticut is actually going through a healthy realignment of its budgeting priorities. No longer can flag bearers for higher taxes dominate the conversation; a more fiscally conservative approach is a breath of fresh air in a state known for overspending and overtaxing.

The sea change has led to a messy, drawn-out process, but one that must occur if Connecticut is going to adopt pro-growth policies that encourage business investment and growth.

That's not to say an unending budget stalemate is a good idea. We need a spending plan so municipalities can get their own fiscal houses in order. The budget delays are also hurting countless nonprofits and businesses that service government contracts.

Democrat and GOP leaders were still negotiating a bipartisan deal as of press time Oct. 12. Malloy also must sign on.

The Republican budget that passed in September wasn't perfect. It relied on questionable long-term pension savings and $260 million in undefined administrative savings, which, if not achieved, would leave the budget out of balance. It also called for deep cuts to higher education and ignored addressing the city of Hartford's impending insolvency.

Meantime, any negotiated deal won't fully solve our state's problems. That's because lawmakers tied their hands earlier this year by agreeing to an ill-advised concessions package with state employees that will purportedly save taxpayers $1.6 billion over two years, but also give unions layoff exemptions and an extension of their current generous benefits contract until 2027.

Such employee safeguards should not be granted during these tumultuous fiscal and economic times. If Connecticut is truly going to restructure government, the General Assembly needs more control over the state's personnel costs; lawmakers should be given the ability to vote on state employee benefits so those perks can be brought more in line with what private-sector workers receive.

Such structural changes likely won't happen this year, but at least Republicans have changed the conversation at the State Capitol. The journey toward fiscal stability won't be paved with a yellow brick road.

On the bright side, the political discourse in the state, while tense at times, has largely been civil, as Democrats and Republicans focus on policy differences rather than personal attacks that have become the norm in Washington D.C.

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