Commission's calls for tax, budget reforms not going away

By Greg Bordonaro

For those who thought the CEO-led Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth ceased operations following the release of its recommendations in March, think again.

Its members, particularly co-chairs Bob Patricelli and Jim Smith, are still working behind the scenes to ensure their plan for tax, budget and economic policy reforms doesn't get mothballed.

That was the message Patricelli, Smith and commission member Cindi Bigelow shared with the 200 or so people gathered at HBJ's June 12 C-suite Awards. I invited them as the event's keynote speakers and they didn't shy away from pointing out the steep challenges Connecticut faces and the need for the business community to play a leading role in confronting them.

Patricelli and Smith said they are on the speaker circuit trying to get in front of business groups and anyone else who's interested in hearing about their proposed solutions for the state's fiscal and economic woes. They are also trying to get in front of gubernatorial candidates to try to shape the debate of this year's important election.

No one should be surprised that Smith, the former Webster Bank CEO and current board chairman, and Patricelli, founder and former CEO of Women's Health USA, are still putting significant time and energy behind the work of the commission, which was created last year by the state legislature to propose a comprehensive plan to make Connecticut more economically competitive.

Both men, Bigelow, the CEO of specialty tea giant Bigelow Tea in Fairfield, and the other commission members, including The Hartford's CEO and Chairman Chris Swift and Stanley Black & Decker President and CEO Jim Loree, put their reputations on the line by joining the commission and aren't interested in going away until their clarion calls for reform are heard and, perhaps, implemented. (They've also established a nonprofit — CT Rising — to continue to fund and support their work.)

Their blueprint didn't hold back any punches. It called for a state tax overhaul, spending cuts, changes to state employee collective bargaining, a minimum wage increase, increased transportation investment (paid for by a higher gas tax and electronic tolls adoption), among many other recommendations.

For those keeping score, lawmakers ignored most of their prescribed remedies, which isn't surprising given the poor track record legislature-appointed commissions have had turning their work into actual public policy.

Their plan also upset many interest groups at the state Capitol. Organized labor called it "anti union," businesses complained about a new payroll tax for large employers, and many legislators still can't wrap their heads around the extent of Connecticut's problems, never mind solutions to them.

Was the plan perfect? Of course not, but there are no simple answers to the many issues — exploding unfunded liabilities, shrinking population, stagnant economy — that plague Connecticut.

What the commission's recommendations did offer was a vision for the future, a comprehensive plan for how Connecticut can slowly grow it's way out of its problems. And "grow" is the keyword. Without economic growth the state's budget woes will continue. Growth will lead to higher tax collections without raising rates and help us pay off our exploding long-term unfunded liabilities.

Connecticut has lacked a vision for decades now, which is why lawmakers would be wise to use the commission's work as a blueprint for the future. The plan still needs a full vetting to gauge it's true economic impact, but without drastic pro-growth policy changes Connecticut's economy will be stuck in neutral or, even worse, reverse.

It's also incumbent upon the business community to demand change. That was what Patricelli, Smith and Bigelow reiterated in Hartford last week and their message isn't going away anytime soon.