Chris Powell: Free college is just a ploy; go local, not regional

The  arts, technologies and science center at Manchester Community College.

The  arts, technologies and science center at Manchester Community College.



Connecticut state government's great new "bipartisan budget" is already $250 million in deficit and budget deficits in the billions are forecast for years to come, but Democratic leaders in the state Senate are proposing to make community college free for students. Mere taxpayers would pay an extra $30 million or so per year.

Many Democratic legislators also favor making state financial aid available to illegal immigrant students in college.

Meanwhile state government's financial support for the innocent needy is in danger of being cut, and a commission appointed to study state government's financial trouble has just urged saving money.

So why are the Democrats so calculatingly oblivious, so intent on reminding people that they remain the Party of Free Stuff, as if anything really is free and as if state government's financial trouble and the contraction of the state's economy haven't been caused in large part by too much free stuff?

The Democrats are doubly oblivious about free community college because Connecticut's education problem is not higher education but primary education. Standardized tests show that most of the state's high school students never master high school math and English but are graduated anyway. Many then are admitted to public colleges only to take remedial courses. A Superior Court judge surveying the state's primary education system reported 18 months ago that high schools are graduating illiterates.

The Democrats say free community college will help the state's employers, who lack qualified applicants. But improving outcomes in primary education, through which everyone goes, would help employers more than free college when so many college students just repeat high school in pursuit of another false credential.

Indeed, in these circumstances free college is less a gift to students than to educators, whose unions dominate the Democratic Party. The proposal is another ploy to rile up the party's base.


TRY LOCALISM, NOT REGIONALISM: Pushing regionalism again in a series at the Connecticut Mirror this month, veteran journalist Tom Condon approvingly quotes a Massachusetts mayor who says a region that wants to prosper has to "act like a region." But Condon proposes little more than the politically correct groupthink of creating regional governments and giving them taxing authority on top of the taxing authority of state and municipal governments.

What advocates of regionalism don't notice is that Connecticut already has tried plenty of regionalism.

That's what state government is, with all its laws and policies outlawing or impairing democratic control of expenses, like binding arbitration of government employee union contracts, defined-benefit pensions for government employees, "prevailing wage" requirements for government construction projects, and the state Board of Mediation and Arbitration's forbidding dismissal of government employees even for the worst misconduct.

More regionalism would mainly let the corrupt and incompetent city governments, which dominate state government through their influence in the majority party, grab more taxes from suburbanites.

In these circumstances the chance of improvement in Connecticut would be greater with more localism, letting municipalities opt out of expensive state mandates that serve only special interests.

Even as Condon was writing his series, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp proposed raising her city's property tax rate by 11 percent rather than aggravate the city's government and welfare classes with too much economizing. Why should anyone outside New Haven want more of that?

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn., and a frequent contributor to New England Diary.