Don Pesci: When will Conn.'s progressive Democrats accept economic reality?




The magic words among progressive Democrats in Connecticut’s General Assembly are “stabilize state finances.” It is an expression very much on the tongue of House Speaker Joe Aresimowitz, long affiliated with unions. Mr. Aresimowitz is employed as education coordinator for AFSCME. Last December, Connecticut’s Office of State Ethics (OSE) advised Mr. Aresimowicz that “nothing in the state ethics code bars him from continuing his job [with] an influential public-employee union once he becomes speaker of the House of Representatives.”

Apparently, the OSE is unfamiliar with the expression “putting the fox in charge of the hen house.”

This convenient expression, “stabilize state finances,” should be taken to mean “raise taxes on the rich.” A quick survey of unending budget deficits, the flight of entrepreneurs and capital from Connecticut, political losses in the General Assembly among Democrats bitten by the progressive bug, and diminished revenue collections from the state’s wealthier citizens should be enough to convince even hard-boiled flat-earthers that soaking the rich ain’t what it used to be.

The wealthy in Connecticut supply about one third of the state’s revenue; this cache of easy money has diminished to such an extent that reliable budget prognosticators are forecasting a budget deficit for the next fiscal year of, in round numbers, $5 billion, a figure that has been bouncing around for days in most newspapers and TV news reports. This entirely predictable turn of events – at some point, as tax increases reaches the point of diminishing returns and yield less revenue – has sensitized Mr. Aresimowitz. But progressives in Connecticut are not easily convinced that doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result eventually will make you a candidate for the loony bin, and so, driven forward by the progressive wind at their backs, they are unwilling to take off the table yet another tax increase.

"'I still refuse to enter the negotiations taking anything off the table,’ Mr. Aresimowicz said,” according to a piece in CTMirror, “noting that neither party nor branch of government has offered a plan to date that comes close to solving the budget crisis.”

Mr. Aresimowicz does have a plan, a familiar one – more taxes. Here is his reasoning: “As the hole in the budget grows,” largely because continuing tax increases have caused a drop in state revenues, “the options become more limited.” Increasing the options by, say, privatizing state functions and thus decreasing pension obligations will never do – because enlarging options will not suit Mr. Aresimowicz’s real constituency, the state's union lobby. Enlarging options by wresting control over state budgets from SEBAC, the state union group authorized to conclude contracts with the governor, and vesting it where it belongs, within the state legislature, will greatly offend Mr. Aresimowicz’s union supporters.

When the State of Rhode Island, facing red ink, wishes to discharge a deficit, it does so through a change in statutes, an option not available in Connecticut, where workforce changes are accomplished – more often NOT accomplished – through negotiated changes in state and union contracts. A change from contract to statutory control over state spending is not an option on Mr. Aresimowicz’s table. And why? Because enlarging this option would be a sane solution to Connecticut’s problems, and Mr. Aresimowicz prefers narrow reforms that allow him to do the same thing over and over again, while assuring the general public that this time the result will be different.

None of the solutions that would bring Connecticut’s dying corpse back to life are easy, because real solutions to fundamental problems touch the fundamental core of state politics. If pensions are the problem, one can attack the root of the problem by bringing state workers into the 21st Century. Pensions are old world relics; workers elsewhere in the state rely on Social Security, defined-contribution plans and, in some cases, a second job. Multibillionaire Warren Buffet raised the hackles of progressives everywhere when he pointed out that he regularly paid less in taxes than his secretary.

Just try convincing Mr. Aresimowicz that the salaries and benefits of unionized state employees should be no greater than employees holding comparable jobs in the private sector.

Everywhere on the left in Connecticut, the chatter is of tax increases, possible tolls,  of moving a third of pension payments to municipalities, of re-instituting Connecticut’s lapsed constitutional cap on spending – but not yet, not yet, someday… what’s the rush?

And nothing is off the progressive Democratic budget discussion table but serious, long-term spending reforms such as have been outlined by the Yankee Institute that really would, in the words of Mr. Aresimowicz “make sure we’re not finding ourselves in this boat again.” How many times must the Titanic meet the iceberg before the captain and crew make a course correction? 

Don Pesci is a political  and cultural columnist based in Vernon, Conn.