POWELL: Governor's budget scorned most by fellow Democrats

Published on Monday, 15 February 2021 19:46
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Since Governor Lamont mused the other day that he has rather enjoyed being able to rule by decree for the past year without having to bother with the General Assembly, maybe it's not so surprising that most criticism of his state budget is coming from fellow Democrats, who are used to sharing power.

Dozens of Democratic state legislators are appalled that while the governor would raise spending by 2%, he doesn't want to raise taxes too much, though he would increase wholesale gasoline taxes and impose a special tax on trucks and a few weeks ago presided over a half-percent increase in the state income tax in the name of paid family and medical leave.

The governor also advocates legalizing and taxing sports betting and recreational marijuana, though the revenue from those things and their timing are only speculative.

That's not enough for the most liberal Democratic legislators. They want income and capital gains taxes raised on the wealthy and state grants diverted from towns to cities, likely prompting property tax increases in the former.

It's all political calculation.

The governor knows that billions of dollars in emergency federal grants to remediate the virus epidemic soon will be on their way to Connecticut. The Hearst Connecticut newspapers reported over the weekend that this likely will mean $2.7 billion for state government and another $1.6 billion for municipalities on top of the $400 million authorized for Connecticut's schools in December by Congress and a president whose name is anathema to most of those who will spend the money. The governor figures that with a little caution in state government this federal money will see it through to the gubernatorial election, in November 2022.

The problem with the governor's calculation is that the emergency federal money will probably not recur - that it will be the biggest installment ever of "one-shot" revenue. When such revenue is used for recurring expenditures and then disappears, it requires government to reduce spending or raise taxes.

That's why the most liberal Democratic legislators want to raise taxes in a big way now, under cover of the epidemic - because unlike emergency federal aid, state taxes are forever and will reduce pressure to economize in government even where policy long has failed, as with education and poverty.

The governor is more sensitive to taxes because his constituency is statewide and is sensitive to taxes too and because, while Connecticut is an overwhelmingly Democratic state, Republicans have finished fairly strongly in the last three elections for governor despite poor campaigns.

The most liberal Democratic legislators are not so sensitive to taxes because most of their districts are safely Democratic and most of their constituents, being poorer, don't pay much in state taxes to begin with and because state government spending is used disproportionately to provide services to the districts that pay little in taxes.

If the most liberal Democratic legislators get sore enough, they could prevent the governor's budget from passing with Democratic votes alone, thereby giving the Republican minority some influence on the budget. But most likely the governor will obtain the budget votes of enough liberal Democrats by reallocating some of the emergency federal money to their favorite purposes without imposing the new taxes they want.

That will leave for 2023 the problem of the evaporation of the big "one-shot" federal grants. But the governor reasonably may hope that the state's economy will recover by then and be producing enough tax revenue to keep state government lumbering along without ever having to worry about expensive policies that work mainly to sustain government employment.

Legalizing marijuana in Connecticut may come with a catch. Urban legislators want to condition it on favoring members of minority groups for the award of marijuana-selling licenses, since members of urban minority groups have been disproportionately involved in drug crime and disproportionately punished for it.

This raises the question raised about college loan forgiveness. What perks will be given to people who paid their own way through college or didn't go at all? And what perks will be given to people who might have become prosperous drug dealers but obeyed the drug laws even though they now are to be considered stupid and futile?

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Column, Editorials on Monday, 15 February 2021 19:46. Updated: Monday, 15 February 2021 19:48.