Chris Powell: Conn., drowning in red ink, keeps sending out discretionary grants

Despite imposing during the last six years Connecticut's two largest tax increases, state government is running its third straight big annual deficit, last week causing Gov. Dannel Malloy to spend the emergency reserve and to suspend some financial aid to municipalities.

The numbers are a judgment of failure and wrongheadedness against the administration. Yet every week the press releases still fly out of the governor's office, announcing millions in discretionary grants being sent hither and yon, seeming to proclaim obliviousness.

Still, the governor deserves a little sympathy, for he alone is dealing with the problem somewhat. The municipalities just whine about it, though the governor's reduction in their aid is an invitation to them to obtain concessions from their employee unions just as the governor is seeking concessions from the state employee unions.

Having left empty the fabled "suggestion box" of a few years ago that was supposed to be filled with proposals for greater efficiency in state government, state employee union leaders speak only of raising income taxes on the rich, as if tax rates should be set not by a careful calculation of fairness and effectiveness but by whatever is necessary for the unions' contentment, as if they have first claim to everyone else's income.

While he complained last week about leaks in the roof of Gampel Pavilion, University of Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma was no help either. At a rally of real estate agents at the state Capitol, Auriemma admitted, "I don't have any answers. I'm not running for anything, nor do I want to." He too just wants money. Auriemma also told the agents: "I‘m in the recruiting business. You're in the recruiting business. When people have a choice, you better give them a reason to pick you." But through its budgeting state government already engages in a lot of recruiting: for government employees, welfare recipients, and, having made itself a "sanctuary state," illegal aliens.

Meanwhile, Republican legislators just cautiously pick around the edges of the budget for small savings in the future that won't alienate anyone in the present. Asked this week why state government shouldn't reduce teacher pension benefits, since the governor is trying to push teacher pension costs onto municipalities, Senate Republican leader Len Fasano defaulted. Instead Fasano expounded on what he called his "tenderness" for teachers, whose unions, far from being tender themselves, are actually the state's most fearsome special interest, constituting the largest politically active group in every town.

With an excess of "tenderness" for the teacher unions, the Senate recently voted unanimously to repeal a law that would end social promotion in schools, a law establishing competence examinations for graduation from high school. Trying a little "tenderness" itself last month, the state Board of Education canceled a plan to incorporate student test scores in teacher evaluations.

While state Comptroller Kevin Lembo, a Democrat who recently became a candidate for governor, is supposed to be a righteous numbers guy, last week he issued a statement denouncing President Trump's removal of FBI Director James Comey. "We must speak out, we must stay engaged, we must stay active, and we must fight back," Lembo said, though Connecticut already has seven members of Congress, all Democrats, making a very good political living on Trump issues, which involve the federal government, not state government.

If Connecticut's numbers guy has any idea of what to do about the state's catastrophic budget numbers, he hasn't yet shared them, though of course he, too, well might prefer to run against Trump.

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