Don Pesci: The legacy of two autocratic governors

“He deserves a going-out a lot more glorious than the one that the Democrats handed him,” former Connecticut Gov. and Sen. Lowell Weicker said of Gov. Dannel Malloy, who had been disinvited to budget talks between legislative Democrats and Republicans. “The legislature dumped him,” Weicker added. “I don’t think that necessarily stands to the glory of the Democratic legislators.”

Birds of a feather flock together.

There is little difference in governing style between Weicker and departing lame-duck Governor Malloy. Both are autocratic and manipulative; both relied heavily on tax increases to fill budget deficit holes; and both claim not to be guided by popularity polls, lofty governors transcending the grubby hoi-polloi. Both were highly unpopular as governors, Weicker because he muscled an income tax through the General Assembly, and Malloy as the author of both the largest and the second largest tax increases in state history. The tax hike in the current budget – which, for the first time throughout the Malloy administration, bears Republican fingerprints -- is a, relatively speaking, modest $1 billion.

Following his sole term as governor, Weicker declined to run for re-election. After two terms in office, Malloy, disapproval rating 68 percent, has declined to allow over-taxed Nutmeggers to vote against him in a ratifying election. Democrats during upcoming campaigns will be measuring the distance between themselves and Malloy in miles rather than feet.

The absence of an income tax, a levy mightily resisted by such moderate Democrat governors  as Ella Grasso, made Connecticut a haven for companies and wealthy residents like Weicker, an heir to the Squibb pharmaceutical fortune. After 1991, the year Weicker pushed an income tax through a dubious General Assembly, companies, perhaps anticipating massive tax and spending increases, sheltered their assets, reduced production, and battened down the hatches, awaiting a national rising tide that would lift all their boats. It never came. Republican Governors John Rowland and Jodi Rell offered ineffective resistance to a resurgent, progressive General Assembly. The recession malingered and recovery was pushed far into the future.

Economic advances during the as yet brief Trump administration – the stock market has increased by $5.2 trillion, about half the national debt  that Barack Obama left the Trump administration – point backwards to an anemic progressive regime. Current unemployment is the lowest in 16 years, and President Trump, sometimes a prisoner of his own hyperbole, likely is not overpromising by much when he says “if Congress gives us the massive tax cuts and reform I am asking for, those numbers will grow by leaps and bounds.”

The income tax had been falsely sold to the legislature as a revenue stabilizer.  Not true – the income tax is more volatile than relatively stable sales or consumption taxes. Since 1980, income-tax revenue in Connecticut has increased a whopping 28 percent, yet the state continues to suffer from repetitive deficits. That is because income taxes are more susceptible to wild swings during market cycles. In the income-tax period, state expenditures rose 138 percent, while income grew only 86 percent between 1980 and 2016.

This volatility has primed reckless spending. Income-tax revenue has decreased in Connecticut during cyclical downturns while spending has increased, creating repetitive deficits.  The spending imperative and the disinclination to cut spending long-term and permanently leads to other dislocations: the sweeping of so-called lockboxes and dedicated funds; the cowardice of legislators who, heavily dependent on union support for re-election, continue to charge the future to pay for unsupportable union salaries and pensions; municipalities hooked on state patronage; and the flight of businesses to less rapacious states – only part of the economic evils let loose when the General Assembly opened the lid to Weicker’s income tax.

In the Greek myth, when Pandora, warned not to so, opened the jar given to her as a gift from the gods, all the imprisoned evils of the world flew out, hope alone remaining in its very bottom.

Hope springs eternal.

This year, the General Assembly produced a fusion product after a Republican budget had been adopted by astonished legislators. The latest budget iteration bears unmistakable Republican fingerprints but is, never-the-less, a Democrat product. Republicans hadn’t the numbers in the General Assembly to deny Democrats substantial tax increases. They did successfully insert a Constitutional spending cap provision that had been a sweetener in Weicker’s initial 1991 income tax proposal; the cap, state Atty. Gen. General George Jepsen ruled several months ago, was never operative because the legislature had failed to provide requisite definitions. The current budget provides the definitions, engaging the cap. Republicans were also successful in capping bonding. A provision that requires legislative assent for additional dollars provided to unions in negotiations with the governor restores minimal legislative authority over budgets. Republicans dropped a measure in their own approved budget, vetoed by Malloy, that would have, if adopted, changed from contract to statute the process by which unions, in collaboration with governors, establish salaries and benefits. Connecticut is among only four states that surrender legislative authority over budgets to union negotiations with compliant governors.

Budgets shape the future; so do political campaigns. Two questions will be decided in the upcoming 2018 campaign: 1) What will the future bring, more of the same or beneficial change, and 2) Do Republicans know how to campaign?

Don Pesci is a Vernon, Conn.-based essayist.