After a cowardly absence of nine months, the General Assembly reconvenes this week. Though legislators may not recognize it, the first question facing them is whether their new session is to be one of substance or merely a formality.
For Governor Lamont has been ruling by emergency decree since the virus epidemic began in March, and with the approval of legislative leaders he has extended that power until Feb. 9. If the emergency is allowed to end then, what is essentially monarchy will end too, democratic government will resume, political responsibility will be widely shared, and legislators will have to earn their salaries again — not that they are paid so much but most have kept money they didn’t really earn.
Supermarket clerks and cashiers, mail carriers, medical personnel, police officers and firefighters, food processors, delivery people, and others have had the courage to continue dealing with the public in their jobs, but not Connecticut’s legislators. They have let the governor handle nearly everything. He has done well in unprecedented circumstances but rule by decree is not democracy. Any legislator who still doesn’t want to do his part in democracy should resign and prompt a special election to locate someone who does.
Even so, it’s easy to see why legislators might want to keep defaulting. Their new session could be the most challenging ever, what with a huge state budget deficit being projected and uncertainty about how much financial assistance from the federal government will be forthcoming. Just trying to make things add up within a billion dollars one way or the other may crowd out all the state’s profound but unaddressed issues.
A longstanding issue is being pressed again by liberals. They want the state to raise taxes on the rich so that everything in state and municipal government can continue without the slightest review of its effectiveness. While he is a liberal Democrat, the governor has opposed raising taxes on the rich, fearing that some will move to states with lower taxes.
This fear is a bit speculative and advocates of taxing the rich more dismiss it, but there is something to it, for Connecticut has been losing population relative to the rest of the country for many years and last week the Census Bureau included Connecticut among 15 states estimated to have lost population in 2020, down about 10,000 people. The wealth of those who moved out is not quantified, but in light of Connecticut’s already high taxes and generous welfare benefits, those who left probably paid more taxes than they consumed in government services and had some financial incentive to leave.
Even some liberals might admit that high taxes don’t attract new self-sufficient residents.
The rich already pay most of Connecticut’s taxes, but even if raising taxes on them would not be the end of the world, why do it without first making some effort to economize in government? Why let it remain essentially illegal to economize?
Transportation writer Jim Cameron recently raised a huge financial issue that isn’t being discussed. Because of the epidemic, Cameron noted, Connecticut’s commuter trains are operating nearly empty, and as businesses have discovered that they can operate well and less expensively with many employees working from home, most commuters probably won’t be coming back — even as state government still in investing heavily in railroads and “transit-oriented development.”
So can state government still justify its big subsidy to the Metro-North Commuter Railroad and the deficit being incurred by state government’s new rail service from Springfield to New Haven?
In any case the legislature’s first order of business should be simply to get down to business — to resolve to end the governor’s emergency powers, to extend as ordinary legislation or to cancel the orders he already has issued, and to remain in session as long as necessary to address additional changes in law or policy that the epidemic may require.
This would not disparage or diminish the governor’s management of the epidemic but require the legislature to decide on anything he proposed to do that was not already within his ordinary authority. This also would bring the public back into government, and not a moment too soon, before the habit of democracy is lost.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.