OP-ED | A Campaign of Substance
Campaign season is officially under way. We will hear a great deal about issues that candidates believe will influence votes. This does not mean, however, that we will be analyzing the information we need to make informed voter decisions.
We especially will not be hearing about strategies that will move Connecticut out of the economic doldrums in which it is perpetually mired.
The majority of our issues are economic in nature. Academic achievement, crime, jobs and rising healthcare costs are all tied to poor economic conditions. How we raise money, how we spend the money we raise and the impact of both of these decisions is central to the quality of life in Connecticut.
Why then during the campaign will the only economic issue we discuss be how much we spend?
I have bored folks for the past 18 months writing about the pressing need to measure the effectiveness of how government operates. How can we promote investments that have a positive economic impact and how do we ensure that this benefit is being achieved?
Why is this concept so important? Because we can’t spend more, but we can most certainly spend better.
Prior to the implementation of the state income tax, Connecticut was noted as a state with great income equality. That is not a typo. An interesting study of Connecticut’s travel toward intense disparities in economic condition can be accessed here.
Subsequent to the implementation of the state income tax, state government grew from approximately $4 billion to $19 billion and economic disparities accelerated dramatically. As government grew, so did economic disparities and urban poverty.
Connecticut traveled from a state in the top 10 when it came to economic parity to the state — behind New York — with the greatest disparity in the nation. All in 30 years.
Many believe it is not a coincidence that these negative population results have coincided with the growth of government.
To want change is not an anti-government sentiment. To the contrary, it is driven by people that still believe government has a fundamental role in shaping how we live, but we need to adjust. We must follow the money we spend in the most intense manner possible to see if it achieves purported goals.
In a recent article in Governing magazine, urban planner Aaron Renn wrote about the challenges in promoting real economic development, using Detroit as an example: “There are a lot of people who are personally doing quite well even in the midst of decay. In fact, the cold reality is that they are benefitting from that decay. In places long in decline, it’s likely to take some outside shock to the system to break the rackets that are producing civic stasis and dysfunction.”
We are not Detroit. Not even close. The point, however, should be well taken. The interplay between an economy and government policies produces certain results. We should honestly appraise these results. When the results are bad, we need to adjust.
Simply, we need to “reallocate” increasingly limited public assets. This is no small effort. No mechanism exists to reallocate funds based upon results. The appropriation of funds appears to be an annuity, not an honest annual appraisal of merit.
New approaches are evolving that measure the impact of taxpayer funded public investments. They should be imbedded in how our state spends money. They should also be discussed during the campaign.
“Pay-for-success” initiatives are prodding government to evaluate the efficacy of programs when making funding decisions. Social financing concepts seek to promote the enormous financial benefits that flow from addressing root causes that avoid later “reactive” costs tied to criminal justice, special education, supportive housing or unemployment. The manner in which we spend money directly impacts our ability to later raise money with tax revenues. These are all such basic concepts that most are unaware that they are absent in the world of government finance.
I wrote some time ago that government does not necessarily need to be smaller, just better. Government jobs are important to our state’s financial health. With arguably the worst job market in the country, a somewhat constricting economy and a decreasing median income, the jobs of those that rely on government are important to the overall health of our state’s economy. Jobs do not need to go away, but they need to be different.
Government can do better and that should be a campaign topic.
Brian O’Shaughnessy of New Haven is a principal in the firm Community Impact Strategies Ltd. The mission of CIS is to facilitate the investment of public and private capital for the purpose of creating measurable improvements in human productivity and living conditions.