Chris Powell: The road to fiscal confusion in Connecticut


Last Wednesday  may have  told the crazy story of state government in Connecticut. 

In the morning the Connecticut Mirror's Jacqueline Rabe Thomas reported that most state agencies had dismissed a request from Gov. Dannel Malloy's budget director to suggest savings in their budgets. Most agencies, Thomas wrote, suggested nothing or failed to reply at all, while some recommended increasing spending instead.

A few hours later the governor proposed a seven-cent increase in the gasoline tax, installation of electronic tolls on state highways, and  a special $3 tax on the sale of tires. He reserved the right to propose budget cuts next week without the assistance of his own administration.

But there  are suggestions from other sources. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, whose acronym CCM long has been mocked as really meaning "Conference of Crying Mayors," had gotten relevant a week earlier. Its executive director, Joe DeLong, and its president, Waterbury Mayor Neil O'Leary, told a study commission that state law should start excluding pension benefits and medical insurance from collective bargaining and binding arbitration of contracts for government employees. 

This was remarkable, since the government employee unions control Connecticut's Democratic Party, CCM represents many local Democratic administrations, and O'Leary himself is a Democrat.

The major candidates for the Republican nomination for governor also propose to curtail collective bargaining and binding arbitration for government employees. So the idea may gain legitimacy after the state election in November. 

The problem is not just the huge cost of state and municipal employees. More important is the cost to democracy, since collective bargaining and binding arbitration in government remove the bulk of public expense from the ordinary democratic process. Indeed, that is the objective -- to let elected officials avoid responsibility to taxpayers for the advantages conferred on government employees.

The biggest issue in state government is not its financial collapse. It is whether the public ever again will be master in its own house.

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DEDICATED FUNDS AREN'T PERSUASIVE: Opposition to tolls is strong, and even advocates condition their support on a new state constitutional amendment guaranteeing that revenue from tolls and fuel taxes is reserved for transportation purposes. An amendment purporting to accomplish that will be on the ballot in November.

The rationale for reserving user taxes for particular purposes is that particular people who cause a particular expense should pay particularly for the benefit they receive -- that the transportation system's users should pay for it. But the rationale is not really so persuasive. 

For everybody benefits from transportation, whether he or she buys gasoline or tires or not, and while everybody pays sales tax on the purchase of goods and services, the use of those goods and services usually causes no particular expense to government. 

Further, for many years state government has kept 2,000 mentally handicapped adults living with elderly parents because there are not enough group homes, and there is no dedicated fund for  these people,  though they constitute a far more compelling need than the bus highway from Hartford to New Britain, the planned commuter railroad between New Haven and Springfield, and pothole repairs.

So why should any particular amount of tax revenue feeding a dedicated fund determine government's priorities? Shouldn't those priorities determine the allocation of revenue? And shouldn't elected officials reconsider government's priorities with every new budget?

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

A table of tolls in pre-decimal currency for the  College Road, Dulwich , London.

A table of tolls in pre-decimal currency for the College Road, Dulwich, London.