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OP-ED | Connecticut Can’t Afford Texan Austerity (And Neither Can Texas)

by Susan Bigelow | Mar 1, 2013 10:33am
(14) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Business, Economics, Opinion

Susan Bigelow Connecticut conservatives are looking to the west and sighing. Texas has a budget surplus. Texas has a booming economy. Why, they wonder while shaking their heads at the mess in Hartford, can’t Connecticut be more like Texas?

It’s tempting. The amount of debt per capita is half that of Connecticut’s, after all, and there is no income tax. Businesses move to Texas, unemployment is low at a cool 6.1 percent, and the population is young and growing. In fact, conservatives are pointing to Texas as a shining example of austerity politics that actually work: Texas’s legislature slashed education and social services to cover a massive budget gap in 2011, and have entered 2013 with a budget surplus. They didn’t even have to raise taxes to do it. From the troubled financial waters of Hartford, that looks pretty good.

And yet, there are plenty of reasons why the Texas model won’t work in Connecticut. In fact, there’s a strong case to be made for why it doesn’t work in Texas, either. First, the surplus Texas is enjoying comes in large part from the energy boom: rising energy prices and more drills and rigs are helping fuel fantastic growth. This is the sort of asset that resource-poor Connecticut won’t ever be able to exploit. Second, Texas did a few things that would be far more difficult to manage, here, including a masterful gimmick that delayed payment of over $2 billion to schools until the next budget cycle.

But the Texas model really doesn’t work because it is devastating for the people who actually live there. In order to balance the budget in 2011, the legislature gutted Medicare spending, shut four community colleges, and laid off 9,400 state employees for a start. The already-stressed public schools, which suffered a $4 billion cut, were especially hard hit. Class sizes increased, teacher aides and paraprofessionals vanished, classrooms were cleaned only every other day, and students were forced to walk up to two miles each way to school as bus service dried up. Not even the notoriously bulging prison system was spared; in some prisons they actually stopped serving lunch on weekends to save money.

This came in a state that already has an abysmal record when it comes to schools, poverty and health care. Texas is at or near the bottom of most 50-state rankings when it comes to public education and health care. In short, Texas has a rapidly growing population, but that population is largely poor, under-schooled, and under-insured. This is especially true of the state’s fast-growing Hispanic community.

And, while Texas has created an astonishing number of new jobs, they may not be great jobs to have. Wage-earners in Texas have long lagged the rest of the country, despite the state’s strong economy. Over the past few years, the number of Texans making at or below the minimum wage increased sharply. Texas ranks 45th in percentage of workers who have health insurance through their jobs. Connecticut, on the other hand, ranks second only to New Hampshire. The Texas legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who was briefly a 2012 presidential candidate, did a lot of chest thumping over the fact that their budget gap was closed without tax hikes, but they did no favors for the quality of life of many Texans.

This is not the model we want to follow. Our state already has a wide income and education gap between cities and suburbs, and cuts like this would make it difficult to ever bridge. Struggling cities and towns would find it nearly impossible to survive without either massive cuts or tax hikes. State employee layoffs would cause unemployment to skyrocket and the economy would get worse. Here’s the thing about austerity: in economies that are growing rapidly it can cause some survivable pain, but in fragile economies like Connecticut’s it can force the economy back into recession. The United Kingdom, an old industrial economy with many similarities to the northeastern states, found this out. Austerity measures are intended to help a government survive tough patches, but they backfire when all they do is make the tough patch longer and longer.

Spending discipline is to be admired, but not when it comes at the expense of public welfare. For all its faults, the balanced approach to the budget that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the Democrats took in 2011 was the right course for Connecticut.

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

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(14) Comments

posted by: DrHunterSThompson | March 2, 2013  2:34pm

DrHunterSThompson

i don’t think it is just republicans looking for a bit of austerity, it’s all common sense individuals.  the fact of the matter is that when the economy was booming in CT, the legislature began funding social programs and supporting towns and cities at a record rate and now it is politically difficult for certain individuals (leadership especially) to dial back the cash flow.

just do it.

HST

posted by: Chien DeBerger | March 2, 2013  2:35pm

“But the Texas model really doesn’t work because it is devastating for the people who actually live there. In order to balance the budget in 2011, the legislature gutted Medicare spending, shut four community colleges, and laid off 9,400 state employees for a start…..Spending discipline is to be admired, but not when it comes at the expense of public welfare.”
Do you not think Connecticut is going to have to do some of these measures and probably even more? Come on Susan, socialism is great until you run out of other people’s money. Glad you aren’t running my house honey..

posted by: ASTANVET | March 2, 2013  6:21pm

This article is like a lot of people I know - looks good on paper - but my family lives in Texas - some of them anyway - and they are not expressing crushing blows as are described.  This is nothing but demagoguery to further a political agenda in CT.  People in Texas love texas… people in connecticut love debt.

posted by: Lawrence | March 2, 2013  7:55pm

Most Republicans love the “race to the bottom” mentality because they are wealthy and privileged and by and large do not represent people of color or the poor. They see Texas as a shining example of how the right wing can maintain power and hurt the most needy. 

Most other human beings don’t believe or behave like that, thankfully.

posted by: ALD | March 2, 2013  7:59pm

Are people moving to Connecticut or moving to Texas?  Is delaying payments to schools in Texas a bigger budget gimmick than delaying payments to state worker pension plans that CT never could afford? 

I do agree the Texas model is probably not right for Connecticut.  But how long will it take before it dawns on people that the Connecticut model is not right for Connecticut either?

But to me what is most clear from this piece is that before we can do anything in CT to fix our mess we have made for ourselves, we first need a better understanding of what exactly is a “balanced approach”.

posted by: Fisherman | March 2, 2013  8:15pm

Ms. Bigelow states:  “And yet, there are plenty of reasons why the Texas model won’t work in Connecticut…”  Let’s examine a few of these reasons:
1)  The Democratic Legislature has given the store away; with bennies such as raising the minimum wage. 
2)  Dannel P. Malloy believes he was elected “King Dannel”.
3)  Connecticut’s environmentalists have driven nearly all manufacturing to other states.
4)  The state is now down to borrowing for daily operating expenses; thus the state‘s credit rating is in the toilet, and our bonds are unattractive to investors.
5)  The only way the state’s late-night party can continue past closing time is to “grab the cash” from municipalities.
6)  Liberal writers like Ms. Bigelow will continue to publicize anything that King Dannel puts forth; be it the truth, or some abstraction of it.  The only thing that can save us now is that the intelligent residents of this state have had enough of Malloy’s failed initiatives.

posted by: DirtyJobsGUy | March 3, 2013  11:04am

Susan,

I’m sorry you are confusing good management with austerity.  Having a lean state government is a good thing.  Texas is a big state with 10 times CT’s population.  They are pursuing business growth that brings all people both professional, crafts and laborers work.  CT has pretended that they can live on high margin defense work and financial industry alone.  Won’t work and hasn’t worked.  When I was last in Texas, the billboards were up along the highways looking for oil and gas workers.  High pay and benefits (as well as real dirty jobs) and more honest work than most of the fly by night first five.

posted by: Historian | March 3, 2013  2:12pm

Actually Texas today was Ct before weicker doublecrossed his voters and pushed through the income tax. For the average person, Texas is the better deal - those on the bottom end survive with less but the entire population advances.
  Ct will never be able to dig itself out of the financial hole the Democrats have dug for us as long as we assume we owe obligations to every special interest group and ignore the whole.

posted by: Noteworthy | March 3, 2013  10:23pm

Deny. Deny. Deny. Yes, I see how it’s working so well here. Per capita debt is the highest in the nation; utility rates are the highest in the nation; our economic activity and job growth are at the bottom and are on life support; we just made it on the death spiral list of states.

Oh, and that’s before the “balanced budget approach” the author referenced was note by the state comptroller has repeatedly certified a chronic and continuing deficit. That is the definition of unbalanced, not balanced.

posted by: JenP | March 4, 2013  10:29am

My sister moved to Texas and just moving raised her standard of living on the same income. Everything in Texas is cheaper. All goods. Because land is cheap and the stores are not being taxed to death. Your dollar goes farther for ALL PRODUCTS. You can actually survive on minimum wage there. You won’t have a house, but you can have a car and you won’t have to have roommates.

People in Texas are mobile, you know. If things are so bad there, how come they aren’t streaming into Connecticut, but the other way around?

“Spending discipline is to be admired, but not when it comes at the expense of public welfare.”

Brilliant. So we should continue to insulate public workers from the pain the rest of us have had to bear in this unending recession? Not to mention the people who do not work for a living, their whole lives.

This is an unsustainable burden, and the reason why young adults leave and the state population is stagnant.
My friends and family in Texas are encouraging me to come over. I’m thinking about it. It is tiring making a living here and having it all get drained away, nickeled and dimed to death by this state.

posted by: Greg | March 4, 2013  11:07am

Susan- You say the Malloy Approach was the best for CT, but for how long can the state go on addressing deficits by increasing spending and increasing taxes before it doesn’t work anymore, and the coming Billion dollar deficits clearly show that the Malloy Approach doesn’t work.

Despite our governor and his supporters declaring that our/their way is best, we’re still losing out to other states, Texas being one of them. CT is (perceived to be) a high tax, high cost of living, anti-business state.  Until that changes we will continue to lag and suffer needlessly.

posted by: sightover | March 5, 2013  8:51am

Does the author not realize how detached from reality her position is? Does baseless northeastern disdain for all things Texas (aka BIGOTRY for all the diversity-worshiping blue state hypocrites) trump economic fact?

“...while Texas has created an astonishing number of new jobs, they may not be great jobs to have.”

So unemployment is preferable to a not-so-great job? Prisoners aren’t getting lunch on Saturday? I don’t have time for three meals a day all week. Boo. Hoo.

Socially-engineering minds have created and perpetuated the decaying society we keep celebrating in CT. They’ve killed the goose and wonder why “those people” in “conservative” states have all the golden eggs. 

Maybe Texas could acquire CT in bankruptcy, restructure the business, and return us to prosperity? That would make heads spin…

posted by: avenge69 | March 5, 2013  9:11pm

Now write a OP-ED piece comparing CT to Detroit and get ready to shudder at the similarities. Hartford spends $379 million or so dollars a year on education, what’s the drop out rate? what’s the rate of students that go on to further their education? Sometimes you have to know when to cut your losses. Doubling down on a bad bet just makes you twice as foolish.

posted by: JenP | March 6, 2013  12:13pm

“But the Texas model really doesn’t work because it is devastating for the people who actually live there.”

This is hilarious. I showed this column to my friends in Texas and they laughed, calling it a case of ‘sour grapes.’ They are doing fine.

The assumption is that Connecticut doesn’t waste any money and there is no place to cut.

Meanwhile, I haven’t eaten at a restaurant in two years and the business I work at has been hanging by a thread. I am ashamed that I had to borrow money to pay my property tax last year. I don’t visit my mother so much anymore because I hate paying for the gasoline.

I can tighten my life down smaller and smaller, to basic subsistence level to pay the State, but, God FORBID!! a state agency should have to cut their budget, in deference to fiscal reality. And God forbid, they take a hard look at why entire streets in Hartford are full of lifetime welfare fraud cases. I lived there- I know. None of my neighbors worked. Young, healthy people, all dependents of the city/ state.

And you come out with this ridiculous column, excusing it all, and making it seem reasonable to bleed workers even more. Shame on you.