Should the restraints on state government spending that were imposed by bipartisan majorities in the General Assembly several years ago be repealed outright or evaded by enacting strategic exceptions, what Governor Lamont disparages as “gimmicks”?
Such clamor has arisen from liberal legislators, social service groups, and other advocates of enlarging government in the face of ever-increasing human need. They note that state government’s finances seem ample.
Yet appearances are deceiving. While state government’s unfunded pension and medical insurance obligations are being whittled down, they remain in the tens of billions of dollars, far above the hundreds of millions sought by those who would repeal the “fiscal guardrails.” Weighed against the vast unfunded obligations, which will burden Connecticut far into the future, the state surplus is tiny.
Meanwhile a national economic recession has begun and probably will reduce state tax revenue substantially in a year or so.
But far more important than this, increasing state government spending is not likely to do much more than increase the compensation of government’s own employees and dependents. After all, the clamor for more spending implies that living conditions in Connecticut have not improved much if at all throughout the recent decades of government’s growth. The clamor suggests that there is more suffering and need in the state than ever.
How could this have happened?
It is probably because the steady increases in state government spending have erased most political pressure to evaluate government agencies and programs for results. Every special interest clamors for more and nearly everyone gets more, and as the most influential special interests are relatively satisfied, few people in those interests or in politics pay much attention to whether anything works well or at all. What major social problem in Connecticut has been solved or even much alleviated?
An indication of this deficiency came the other day from a surprising source — state Sen. Douglas McCrory, a liberal Democrat from Hartford who serves on the legislature’s Education Committee. Supporting a controversial budget amendment to authorize a charter school in Danbury, an amendment that was defeated, McCrory declared that Connecticut’s public schools are failing many children from racial minorities. Rebuking his colleagues, McCrory added: “No one has spoken about outcomes for children this whole session.”
Yes, there always will be clamor for more money, most of all in the name of education, but no inquiry into results, which lately have been especially bad, as student performance has been declining for many years, since long before the virus epidemic.
Most students in Connecticut long have failed to master high school math and English before receiving their diplomas. Most students do not perform at grade level but are promoted and graduated anyway. Meanwhile public higher education demands huge spending increases even as lower education collapses.
Does Connecticut want its young people to grow up capable of self-sufficiency or to join the ever-growing underclass in dependence? It looks like the latter.
More spending has not necessarily been improving outcomes because few people of political influence care about outcomes, since no one has to care. This indifference hints at the advantage of restricting spending, as the governor is inclined to do, since the tighter the budget, the greater the incentive for interest groups to scrutinize each other for failure and waste and claim to be more deserving.
Nonprofit agencies that perform much of state government’s social services have an especially strong claim for more money. Their employees long have received only mediocre raises, if any, and have fallen far behind inflation. But a few weeks ago those agencies and their employees had nothing to say when the legislature and the governor easily found $50 million in bonuses for unionized state government employees who already had gotten big raises in their recent master contract.
If interest groups were ever compelled to scrutinize each other, Connecticut might have the most effective and efficient state government in the country. Only budget restraint can accomplish that.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut. (CPowell@JournalInquirer.com)