There are two critical issues for the governor and the General Assembly in 2010: Preserving jobs and balancing the state budget.
To balance this year's budget, Democrats and Republicans must move out of their respective comfort zones. Democrats need to wring more cuts out of programs on top of the $3 billion that's already been cut. Republicans need to eliminate bureaucracy and overhead in executive branch agencies that are bloated with 20 years worth of political appointees by GOP governors. It's time for everyone to move beyond business as usual.
To close this year's deficit and address the shortfall when one-time federal and rainy day funds are gone, we need sweeping, fundamental change. Last year, I proposed eliminating the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Its responsibilities could be shifted to other state departments while more of its services could be put online or made available at consumer-friendly kiosks in local shopping areas.
The governor did not agree then; we cannot afford to wait now. Eight state agencies — those affecting banking, insurance, homeland security, mental health and other areas — should be merged into four. We need major consolidations that produce real savings over time.
As we make the painful cuts necessary for fiscal responsibility, we must avoid making the tough job market even worse for families and individuals. An example is the recent decision by Gov. M. Jodi Rell to cut the licensed practical nurse training program at our technical schools. That decision eliminated job opportunities. Hundreds of students graduated from this program every 16 months, and all got good jobs. That's a door to employment that should be reopened, and a bipartisan effort to do that is underway.
We must end the duplication, overlap and confusion among our economic development agencies. It's time to consolidate the departments, cut the bureaucracy and provide one-stop shopping help for small business. The emphasis must be on responsiveness and growing jobs, not preservation of the status quo.
We can find savings elsewhere. The back-office functions of state agencies — personnel, payroll, printing and purchasing — should be managed by a central office. Democratic state Sen. Ed Meyer and Republican state Sen. John McKinney said that Riverview State Hospital, with its annual per-patient cost exceeding $500,000, should be closed. We should make that happen. State government can help municipalities by regionalizing special education services, standardizing school construction and aggregating municipal bond expenses. The legislature and the governor must streamline, economize and deliver services more efficiently.
Meeting the challenge of future balanced budgets will also require cost-cutting by the constituencies that depend on state funding. In the next year and a half, cities and towns, nonprofits and other institutions must identify and pursue strategies to reduce costs and save money.
If we work together, shortfalls in future years can be mitigated and managed. If we ignore this year's opportunity, deep cuts will occur next year — cuts that will be made with less time for thought, and carry worse consequences.
It's little consolation that times are tough all over. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 48 states have mid-year budget gaps ranging from a half-percent to more than 20 percent of current-year spending. Connecticut's current deficit of $500 million is about 3 percent of our $18 billion budget.
But at least this year, Democrats and Republicans all start with the same budget bottom line.
Last February, Gov. Rell publicly acknowledged a budget deficit of $8 billion, but presented a budget that only addressed $6 billion to avoid unpopular spending cuts and increased taxes. Republican lawmakers followed suit in April when they underestimated the size of the deficit by $600 million.
In July, Democrats passed a bill requiring the executive and legislative branches to agree on state revenue projections. Democrats had to override gubernatorial and Republican opposition to the bill, which — once in effect — set the stage for a budget agreement.
Last year, the governor's failure to acknowledge the true deficit contributed to months of delay in meaningful budget negotiations. That will not occur this year. In 2010, all sides must work — right from the start — to meet our fiscal obligations, and to preserve jobs for Connecticut's families.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at