Adding to a Misguided Policy Mix: Zoning Proposals in Connecticut

There has been much debate about whether the zoning practices of towns in Connecticut are discriminatory.  Discriminatory has become a politically weaponized pejorative word used to presume the motivations of any town and their residents with a different demographic than what is considered ideologically “righteous.”  Any town with under-representation of an economic, racial, or ethnic minority is assumed guilty of moral turpitude.  

The reality is there is one gating factor in many of these towns in Connecticut and across the county: the cost of purchasing a housing unit in that town.  One should not look at this gating factor of cost in isolation to judge its ethical merit, as there is an infinite amount of gating factors in society ranging from education to how you choose your partner.  The grades our kids get in elementary school are a gating factor for whether they get into an honors class.  How they perform in school will largely determine whether they get past the gating factors in the college admissions process.  How they perform in college and beyond will largely determine gating factors of future employment, job promotions, and income. Debate on the merits of these gating factors is reasonable.  That debate should happen.  The concern is the government or any central authority capriciously deciding appropriate gating factors through policy, arbitrarily deciding winners and losers among residents in the process.

The non-profit group DesegregateCT has focused on changing town zoning policies by State government fiat.  This group has advanced the idea that each town should not fully determine for itself its plan for development.  In this group’s view, State legislators are better equipped to decide that for the towns, even though race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are already appropriately illegal gating factors in town zoning.  Though many towns can do more to foster an inclusive environment, the idea that the agent for these changes should be the State instead of the towns is undermined by a longstanding irresponsible and uncompetitive State policy mix that has hurt all citizens, regardless of background. 

The upshot of this policy mix is Connecticut has ~$14 billion in available assets to fund ~$82 billion in bills coming due, with yearly expenses growing faster than revenues.  Imagine your family or individual bank account with $140,000 in available assets to pay $820,000 in debt, while projecting higher costs than income for the foreseeable future.  Add several zeroes to that scenario and you have Connecticut.  

State government has addressed this growing debt burden in Connecticut through short-term fixes (tax increases) with negative long-term consequences (a lower tax base from net outmigration).   The high cost of living and few comparative advantages we have versus other states has contributed significantly to ~163,000 people leaving Connecticut on a net basis since 2012, along with their ~$12 billion of income.  At a 6% blended tax rate, that is ~$700 million a year in lost tax revenues in a State facing chronic budget deficits for the foreseeable future.  

Regardless of party affiliation, one should consider the impact of this policy mix on poor people and people of color.  Has it been beneficial or detrimental?  Paradoxically, advocates of fiscally liberal ideas in Connecticut have undermined the social and economic mobility to which they state allegiance.  Whether it be government-forced school regionalization or government forced local town development through zoning “reform,” both are the end result of trying to recoup left-wing policy mistakes through ever more misguided government coercion.   

We can not be competitive with other states with a fiscally liberal policy agenda.  Nor can we attract new businesses and investment by running left of competing states in a secularly mobile workforce where technologies like Zoom enable remote work from any location, highlighting the differences in cost of living between states.  

For the millions of people that have been hurt by Connecticut having the worst or close to the worst state-wide economic performance in recent years there is nothing “fair,” “just,” or “equitable” in State policy outcomes.  Placing town zoning laws in a State legislative process will lead to similar counterproductive economic results.

James D. Basch
New Canaan, CT

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