August 20, 2018

Will general election moderate unrealistic policy ideas?

Greg Bordonaro Editor

The field of candidates vying for governor has finally been whittled down.

Now that the primaries are over, the remaining contenders should also truncate their list of unrealistic policy ideas.

Both Ned Lamont and Bob Stefanowski, the Democratic and Republican nominees for governor, respectively, fed voters a litany of reforms they say will jumpstart the state's economy and/or help solve Connecticut's long-standing budget crisis.

Some of these ideas, however, aren't realistic because the state can't afford them, or they don't make economic or fiscal sense.

The general election typically forces candidates to moderate some of their policy stances so they can appeal to a wider base of voters. But both Lamont and Stefanowski will be hard-pressed to totally distance themselves from campaign promises that seem pie-in-the-sky to those who understand and follow the state's fiscal and economic challenges.

Meantime, Oz Griebel, the independent candidate who is vying to get on the November ballot, has probably offered one of the most realistic blueprints to deal with some of the state's problems (adoption of tolls, focus on regionalism to reduce the costs of delivering government services, structural fiscal reforms for the state's cities, etc.) but his campaign still remains a long shot.

Bob Stefanowski

Stefanowski surprised many people with his Aug. 14 primary victory, but he's also boxed himself in with his promises to eventually phase out the corporate, gift and estate taxes and, most notably, the income tax.

While those may sound like sexy policy ideas, especially to ardent Republican voters who cast their ballots on primary day, making them work within the confines of Connecticut's budget situation seems like an improbable, if not, impossible task.

Here's the skinny on the income tax: The state's seven-tiered income tax, which ranges from 3.99 percent for the lowest earners to 6.99 percent for the wealthiest, generates $9 billion annually, or about half of state government's General Fund revenue. Eliminating the tax would require unprecedented cuts in state spending, at a time when Connecticut's budget is already projected to be more than $4 billion in deficit over the next two fiscal years and is facing continued higher costs from retiree pension and healthcare benefits.

Complicating matters further, the next governor can't order wide-scale layoffs immediately because of restrictions imposed by a bad labor deal brokered by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy with state employees.

The bottom line: Stefanowski won't be able to make the numbers work, not now and not in the near future.

To be clear, Connecticut must resist the temptation to raise taxes further (unless it's done in the context of broader tax reform, ie. lessening one tax and boosting another to make it revenue neutral) and it must take a much harder line with state employee unions. The cost and size of state government must be reduced.

But a blanket promise to eliminate the income and other taxes flies in the face of reality.

Ned Lamont

On the other end of the political spectrum is Lamont, who has been a fervent progressive on the campaign trail, pledging to protect the rights of state and other unionized workers, push for an economic fairness agenda, invest in transportation and clean energy, and possibly raise taxes.

Taken as a whole, Lamont's agenda isn't much different from Malloy's, which could be a problem given the current Democratic governor's abysmal job-approval rating and his inability to turn around the state's fiscal and economic malaise.

And Lamont hasn't been short on fanciful ideas.

For instance, he wants to make the first two years of any public college or university tuition-free to in-state students who commit to living and working in Connecticut for a period of time after they graduate. While it's a nice idea to try to stem the state's brain drain, higher education funding is already under attack, so trying to secure more money to offer free college isn't economically feasible.

Candidates use the convention and primary seasons to set out a vision, sometimes one that is more idealistic than realistic. As we head into the general election, voters need to hold candidates accountable for those promises. Policy ideas must be put in context of the real-world problems this state faces.

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