EDITORIAL: Connecticut needs to make fundamental fiscal changes

"Sometimes we have to take the good with the bad, but the absolute worst we can do is nothing at all."

That was Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, endorsing a diverse and potentially painful array of recommendations to revitalize Connecticut compiled by the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth. The 14-member commission was established by statute last October.

Looking to the long term, the CCM came out in favor of the commission’s plan as a whole, despite elements in it that call for a dramatic reduction in the state budget, which could prove pretty painful for the towns and cities.

And while it is highly unlikely that any broad-ranging plan would be adopted without amendment, it makes sense to start out with an intention to make fundamental changes to the way Connecticut does business — because years of tinkering and fiddling with budgets, fine-tuning of taxes and chopping away at state services have produced a series of annual deficits, with no relief in sight.

This state is not on a sustainable economic path. Snowballing retirement benefit costs, underfunded for decades, promise unprecedented pressure on state finances for the near future. Meanwhile, wild swings in state aid make it almost impossible for towns and cities to chart their own fiscal course.

"We can wait no longer for substantive change that will set the state on a sustainable economic path that will benefit hard-pressed residents and businesses," DeLong said.

At the very least, the commission’s plan could be a starting point.

By one measure, Connecticut is just now coming out of a ten-year slump, having finally replaced the 111,700 jobs lost in the 2008 recession, according to the Labor Department. But the economic recession has left this state in a state of emotional depression that has only been exacerbated by each subsequent year’s river of red ink flowing out of the Capitol in Hartford.

Some concepts presented by the commission — such as trying to save a billion dollars a year through technology, increased efficiency and privatizing some services — seem destined to disappoint. (When has that ever panned out, at either the state or federal level?) Other ideas — such as allowing municipalities, or groups of municipalities, to piggyback onto the state sales tax with their own half-point surcharge, and to in effect tax nonprofit colleges and hospitals, and to lay on various other taxes and fees — only reinforce the idea that we are, and always will be, a high-tax state.

Many of the commission’s proposals are bound to offend some interest, as, for example, the idea of making changes to collective bargaining will surely be opposed by unions.

But who, right now, has a better idea?