Don Pesci: Weicker back with more incoherence; Hartford's dilemma and opportunity

Downtown Hartford, once famed as the "Insurance Capital of the World.''    --  Photo by Sage Ross

Downtown Hartford, once famed as the "Insurance Capital of the World.''

--  Photo by Sage Ross

Former Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker surfaced recently and both condemned, unwittingly, and complimented lame duck Gov. Dannel Malloy.

Every so often, Mr. Weicker, intent on working the dents out of his legacy, pokes his head above the fox hole, scans enemy territory for a friendly face, and spills some political beans. Ken Dixon of the Connecticut Post asked Mr. Weicker to comment on Mr. Malloy’s decision to pack it in, and he obliged. What Weicker said was, as usual, confusing and contradictory.

Mr. Malloy’s decision to withdraw his name for re-nomination, Mr. Weicker said, “unties Malloy’s hands.” Really? Malloy’s hands have not been tied during his entire term in office. All the heights of power in Connecticut’s government – the governor’s office, the General Assembly, the state’s constitutional offices, Connecticut’s U.S. Congressional Delegation, important courts appointments made by Mr. Malloy – have been in Democrats' hands since Mr. Malloy had first been elected governor. Indeed, so untied were Mr. Malloy’s hands that he felt comfortable denying Republican leaders in the General Assembly any voice in union contract negotiations with SEBAC, the union conglomerate authorized to fashion contracts with the governor; and when budget deliberations began during Malloy’s first term and second terms, he shooed Republicans out of the negotiation room and slammed the door in their faces.

One thinks of Cromwell marching into the British Parliament and shouting, “Gentlemen, go home!” There is not a hint of “tied hands” in any of this?

Mr. Weicker then added that, were he governor, “I would to the best of my ability deny the spending spree in the legislature. We’ve got to stop spending. That’s our huge problem. Every legislator has their pet project. We’re probably in the worst financial condition of any state in the union, and we’re known for that, rather than being the wealthiest.” He rounded out his thoughts, such as they were, by commending Mr. Malloy, whose approval rating in Connecticut is among the lowest in the nation, at about 28 percent: “Dan’s had two terms, which is heavy-duty in Connecticut. I would say he still wants to leave a positive legacy. I admire the man. I like him. He’s a good governor.”

So let’s see: in 20 months, Mr. Malloy will have been in office for two terms; he is the author of both the largest and second largest tax increases in Connecticut history, outperforming even Weicker on this score; the Connecticut legislature, dominated by Democrats for a half century or more, has, even by Weicker’s reckoning, spent the state into a hole; state deficits are about what they were during Weicker’s first term in office – which, everyone will recall, necessitated the imposition of an income tax; Connecticut is “in the worst financial condition of any state in the union” Mr. Weicker pronounces, adding, implausibly, “I admire the man. I like him. He’s a good governor.” What work, if any, does the word “good” do in that sentence?

In Mr. Weicker's mind -- not that anyone need bother too much with Mr. Weicker's mind -- spending is not a function of taxation, and taxation is not a function of spending. That is why Mr. Weicker can say, both and at the same time: a) spending is a problem; if I were  governor, I would put a stop to spending, and b) Malloy, who has not done this, is, nevertheless, an admirable governor. Malloy and Weicker have increased spending because they increased taxes. These two operations being detached in Weicker's mind, Malloy is a “good governor.”

Mr. Malloy is a good governor for much the same reason Mr. Weicker was a good governor: facing deficits, both raised taxes permanently – inflicting permanent damage upon the state, while satisfying progressive legislators and unions. Mr. Weicker likes Mr. Malloy because Mr. Malloy is like Mr. Weicker.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin -- who, as chief counsel to Mr. Malloy, learned his politics at the feet of the master --is cut from the same progressive cloth as Mr. Weicker and Mr. Malloy. In fact, Connecticut’s capital city, is a microcosm of the state. Whatever is wrong in Hartford is wrong in the state; whatever is right in Hartford is right in the state.

Hartford has been a one-party town for more than 50 years. The presence of the Republican Party in the city as a political force is a whisper in the wind. Mr. Bronin replaced Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, who, before leaving office, gifted the incoming mayor with a financial mess and a new ballpark that will be losing millions of dollars two years out from opening day. The school system in Hartford, laboring under a court order that requires schools in the city to maintain an “equitable” ratio of 25 percent whites to 75 percent minorities, is in continuing crisis.

A charter school in Hartford that provides to African-Americans and Hispanics an education that does not require remedial courses for those of its students who graduate and go to college has been forced to turn away African-American and Hispanic students because it must preserve a 25-75 percent mixture of white and non-white students that a Connecticut court whimsically considers constitutional. No one in the city even blinks at this obvious example of court-ordered educational discrimination against minority mothers who want a better education for their children.

Hartford derives its revenue from property taxes, but there is a hitch: about fifty percent of the property in Hartford cannot be taxed. When the city wades into red ink, it makes an effort – only partly and temporarily successful much of the time – to reduce costs by reducing expenditures and begging state union workers for givebacks. In both the city and the state, union givebacks have been insufficient to balance budgets without additional revenue increases. Mr. Bronin’s present budget is running a deficit in part because savings from past “givebacks” have not been given back. The budget Mr. Bronin just presented relies on a generous gift from the state’s lame-duck governor than may not materialize. Both Hartford and state budgets are “balanced” by revenue projections that may never materialize.

Here is Mr. Bronin’s dilemma in a nutshell: He cannot increase taxes without incurring business flight and a consequent diminution of revenue, and he cannot – dare not – institute permanent cuts in spending by courageously confronting powerful unions. Yet spending continues to outpace revenue collections. For this reason, both he and Malloy find themselves in the same position as Mr. Micawber in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery."

Hartford has an insuperable advantage over the state. The city, as a default strategy, can and likely will declare bankruptcy, which will have the beneficial effect of forcing Mr. Bronin to do what he, Mr. Malloy and Mr. Weicker were loathed to do – cut spending by reducing contractual “fixed-cost” expenditures.

Don Pesci is a Vernon, Conn.-based political writer.