Chris Powell: Are Connecticut's GOP legislators ready for responsibility?

  Connecticut's Merritt Parkway in  the sprin g.

Connecticut's Merritt Parkway in  the spring.

 

MANCHESTER, Conn.

Just days from now Connecticut may be the most beautiful place in the world as its trees and flowers bloom, its skies brighten, its weather warms, and people open their windows and emerge from their winter quarters. But administratively and politically Connecticut will be something else -- perhaps the most deranged, deluded, and declining state in the country.

If many people still believe anything coming out of state government, this week's state income tax revenue estimates, shockingly below expectations, should puncture whatever illusions remain that Connecticut is improving or even leveling off from its long decline. For if the state was improving, tax revenue would be rising, not falling, as would the state's population, and not every business expansion would have to be purchased with a subsidy from state government.

Despite the crash in revenue estimates and a projected state budget deficit approaching $2 billion, this week the General Assembly's Appropriations Committee announced that it wants to increase state spending by more than 5 percent in the next year, which would mean more big tax increases, especially since most legislators have rejected Gov. Dannel Malloy's proposal to balance the budget by slashing education aid to most towns and to require towns to cover a third of the annual cost of the teacher pension fund.

Many legislators will  go along with the governor's plan to exact $1.7 billion in concessions from the state employee unions somehow, but only as long as the governor handles that challenge by himself so legislators don't have to alienate the unions with legislation.

Also this week the superintendent of the Connecticut Technical High School System resigned while under investigation for spending $4.5 million of state money with a public relations agency, much of it for largely self-promotional publicity over the last three years.

In other states such a scandal might prompt the legislature to inquire as to how so much money could be spent so self-servingly before somebody noticed. But in Connecticut things like this just prompt legislators to look harder for ways to raise more money.

Though the Appropriations Committee devised a budget this week, its one-member Democratic majority could not bring itself to vote on it without assurances of support and political cover from Republican members, which wasn't forthcoming. Democratic leaders were bitter about this but they shouldn't have been, for the committee's inability to report a budget increased the obligation of the Republicans to propose one of their own, which they have been reluctant to do, since it would require them to cut spending substantially or raise taxes or do some of both -- that is, to take responsibility.

But if the Republicans summon the courage to specify spending cuts so that tax increases can be avoided, they just might get their budget passed in the legislature and signed by the governor, a Democrat who has begun opposing tax increases, perhaps in part because he is not seeking re-election and needn't worry as much about his own party.

The legislature's political margins are now so close that to pass a budget the Republicans would need to draw only several Democratic votes in the House and only one in the Senate, and there are many Democratic legislators who would make themselves vulnerable in the election next year if they raised taxes as they have done before with their governor. Then the Republicans could go into the campaign as the party that prevented another big Democratic tax increase.

Of course the Republicans would have made enemies among some of those who are dependent on state spending, but they were never going to get those votes anyway.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.