Nineteen-Ninety-One Crisis Has Nothing On Looming Disaster
January 11, 2009
It's going to be brutal. There is no way the 2009 General Assembly session, which began Wednesday, is going to be anything but. Actually, brutal may be too kind a word. Bloodbath may be more like it.
Political observers will undoubtedly compare this year to 1991, when it took seven months and the obstinacy of a third-party governor to close a budget deficit of unprecedented proportions.
That year, the budget battle spilled over into the new fiscal year, forcing a temporary shutdown of state government. Continuing budget resolutions had to be passed for essential services to restart, Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. had to quell an uprising when he closed state parks, bullets were fired at legislators' houses, and a rally of 40,000 on the state Capitol lawn resulted in Weicker being hung in effigy and the legislature nearly repealing the just-enacted state income tax. In short, it was a nightmare.
What lies ahead, however, may well be worse. The 2009 session is supposed to be five months. Forget that. Be prepared for a session that just keeps on going like the Energizer Bunny. The reasons? Sharply conflicting political ideologies and a recessionary economy with no relief in sight. The $6 billion gap that looms in the next biennial budget is destined to grow, not shrink.
But first, lawmakers have to deal with this year's deficit, which has been pegged at somewhere around $350 million. That number is pure fiction. The usual torrent of capital gains, dividends and interest taxes — upon which Connecticut depends so heavily to balance its budget — will run dry when tax returns are filed in April. With the exception of New York, no state is as reliant on the financial services industry for jobs and taxes as Connecticut.
Other sources of revenue are plummeting as well — among them the sales tax, revenue from the two casinos' slot machines, the gas tax and corporate taxes.
Meeting in emergency session in November, the legislature made some minor budget adjustments and deferred the hard decisions to this year. In 1991, enactment of an income tax was the only plausible solution to the state's budget woes. But with the income tax in place, we've been there, done that. Moreover, the size of the shortfall as a percentage of the budget is greater now than it was 18 years ago.
But here's the real difference: In 1991, Weicker — after saying that instituting an income tax would be akin to pouring gasoline on a fire — became convinced that its enactment was the only logical way out of the budget morass. Weicker, a Republican-turned-independent, formed an unholy alliance with the Democratic Party and together they pushed through the income tax.
Connecticut now has a Republican governor, M. Jodi Rell, who is a fiscal conservative and whose mantra will be "cut, cut, cut," as she affirmed in her opening day address Wednesday. Rell is scheduled to reveal her proposed budget in February. She will butt heads with Democrats whose leaders are dyed-in-the-wool liberals and who control both chambers.
Rell's first instincts will be to eviscerate state government, lay off state workers, enact some minor revenue enhancements and dip into the state's rainy day fund. The Democrats' natural inclination will be to turn what is essentially a flat income tax into a sharply progressive one. Led by new House Speaker Christopher Donovan, who is cozy with organized labor, the Democrats will do everything in their power to protect state employees.
As for the Senate, its leader, President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. has come up with such innocuous suggestions as consolidating state agencies. That will save about as much money as former Gov. John Rowland's plan to eliminate basketball courts at state prisons and the Senate GOP plan years ago to do away with water coolers. Want to save $6 billion? Merging state agencies won't achieve that goal; eliminating them will.
In the end, the solution will be a combination of higher taxes, deep spending cuts and draining the rainy day fund. No constituency will be spared. Take-home checks will be lighter, state government will be slimmer. Brace yourself for longer waiting lists for group homes; fewer snow plow drivers; fouler air and dirtier water; shuttered motor vehicle offices; higher prices for prescription drugs for seniors; less aid for cities and towns; soaring property taxes; and skyrocketing tuition at public universities.
1991 will seem like a walk in the park.
• Michele Jacklin is a former political columnist for The Courant and now works at a local college.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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