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OP-ED | Welcome to the New Austerity

by | Feb 5, 2016 10:00am
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Posted to: Analysis, Business, The Economy, Town News, Jobs, Labor, Opinion, State Budget, Taxes

The legislative session kicked off under gloomy skies as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced his plans to balance the budget through massive spending cuts and layoffs. The stage is now set for what should be a brutal battle between the governor and state employee unions, with the legislature caught in the middle.

The problem, as Malloy explained, is that the economy just isn’t getting better. As Malloy told the General Assembly, “Connecticut is not going back to that pre-recession reality. It just doesn’t exist anymore.”

And so the axe will fall. Malloy’s budget proposal “will require the reduction of the state workforce by more than a thousand employees,” as well as across-the-board cuts in spending.

This is a tacit admission that the policies he pursued in the past, which all fell short of draconian cuts and austerity measures like these, were great in theory but never panned out in practice. Malloy has been trying for his entire time in office to find a way to make Connecticut’s state budget sustainable, from 2011’s “shared sacrifice” to last year’s tax increases. None of them have worked, sticking us in an increasingly infuriating cycle of deficits and short-term fixes. That sort of instability has been blamed for our lousy business climate, among other things, and Malloy clearly hopes to finally fix the issue once and for all.

The governor laid the blame squarely at the feet of the legislature itself. “We can’t be opposed to tax increases, but unwilling to cut the spending those taxes support,” Malloy lectured those assembled. “We can’t be for reigning in spending, but oppose cuts in any one line item.”

Therefore, the governor is asking a legislature he clearly sees as feckless and incompetent to surrender some of its power. He called on them to pass an enforceable spending cap and a stronger transportation lockbox, and to allocate money to agencies in large chunks to be spent at the discretion of commissioners instead of as line items, which is what they do now.

Legislative leaders aren’t happy about that. Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said that legislators are elected make these kinds of budget decisions, and House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said, “This is not a dictatorship where [Gov. Malloy] controls more and more every day and where the Democrats in the majority are so scared to make a decision.” Democratic House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, called the proposed change to how budget dollars are allocated “problematic from the onset.”

Is any of this actually worth doing?

Some of it is. The spending cap was passed by voters, and even though these sorts of caps often seem to backfire, it should be finally implemented. The lockbox for transportation funding is a necessary protection, and should also be passed and approved by voters this fall.

As for the cuts and the layoffs . . . that I’m less sure about.

“The measures I’ve laid out today aren’t about cutting spending just to cut spending,” Malloy said. “This isn’t a call for overzealous austerity, or a departure from Connecticut’s core values.”

Okay. I’m on board with trying to budget based on what we have coming in instead of the current services model. But it’s impossible to pretend that laying off so many workers will be anything but brutal. Plenty of agencies, like the continually embattled Department of Children and Families, don’t have enough money and workers to actually carry out their missions now, so I can’t imagine what they’ll be like post-cuts. The effect on worker morale and productivity is likely to be awful, as well.

There’s also the economic ripple effect of over a thousand people losing their jobs at the same time. In fact, it’s just this sort of gutting of state and local workforces that slowed down the recovery earlier this decade.

Maybe the governor is willing to accept those consequences. Or maybe this is what he thinks will make recalcitrant state employee unions come to the bargaining table willing to accept deep salary and benefit cuts. We’ll see.

I also have to take issue with the governor trying to remove some of the legislature’s budgeting powers. If this were a business it would make sense for department and agency heads to craft their own budgets — but this isn’t a business. Government has different fundamental assumptions underlying it, and the most important of those is that it runs according to the people’s wishes. The legislature, not the governor, is the purest expression of that.

And so the new session starts with doom, gloom, power grabs, recriminations, and the prospect of misery. As the governor said, we’re sticking with our core values after all.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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