Let’s not waste the work of the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth

By Susan Merrow

The Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth, created during the drama-fraught 2017 budget battle to recommend bold action for jump starting Connecticut’s economy, fulfilled its mandate to produce a comprehensive plan by March 1 of this year. Even more astonishing than the Commission meeting its deadline, four legislative committees held a hearing on the Commission’s report before March 31, as required by statute.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the study, like the dozens that have preceded it, won’t be consigned to the proverbial dust-covered shelf where its recommendations will forever be ignored. It would be a travesty if that occurred – again. Yet the likelihood of that happening is high.

In the 76 days of its existence, the Commission, with the help of consultants hired with funds raised by co-chairs Robert Patricelli and Jim Smith, produced a 68-page report proffering a broad range of recommendations – everything from a major overhaul of Connecticut’s tax structure to changes in the way the legislature’s budget-writing committees are organized, to solutions for the state’s pension woes.

Patricelli and Smith delivered the report with the caveat that the recommendations must be accepted in its entirety – all or nothing — if the plan for overhauling the state budget process and rejuvenating the economy is to have any chance of success.

Even before a contentious public hearing on March 23 on the report’s contents, it was apparent that swallowing the recommendations in one large gulp was destined to be a legislative impossibility.  It’s not clear that any group – let alone partisan and headstrong lawmakers — could have achieved the consensus the Commission was looking for. In addition, a number of powerful constituencies, such as organized labor and the business community, are strongly opposed to many of the report’s major components.

The question before the legislature is: What is to become of the work of this commission?  Will it be relegated to the ash heap of history? It would be a shame if it was.

Opponents are not wrong, however, in objecting to many of the key provisions. In examining the recommendations, it’s apparent that reforms of such magnitude cannot be fully scoped out in 76 days.  That said, there is the whiff of a consensus on some of the items: for example, the need to restructure the legislature’s budget-making process, the sharing of services to achieve municipal savings, and an increase in the minimum wage.

But there are major omissions as well. Lacking is any mention of the role of income inequality or whether economic growth would benefit all of Connecticut’s citizens, regardless of their wealth. And there are some highly challengeable assumptions: that $1 billion in spending reductions can (or should) be achieved with a 3 percent across-the-board budget cut.

The omissions, objections and incorrect assumptions speak to the need to subject the report to a much-needed vetting, an examination of its numbers, a thoughtful weighing of its risks, and a process that invites more of its stakeholders to the table.

Who could carry out this necessary endeavor?  One bill currently making its way through the legislative labyrinth would refer the vetting to the state’s budget agency, the Office of Policy and Management.

It’s worth noting that not only has OPM had its resources and staff greatly reduced, but it will almost certainly undergo a change in leadership after the November election. Thus, having OPM take the lead in the vetting process is hardly a good idea.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has useful data on state and municipal finance as well as the expertise and capability to analyze the Commission’s recommendations. Reputable groups like the New England Public Policy Center in Boston are also set up to do the kind of analysis that could take this project to the next level.

Before the legislature adjourns in May and its members turn their attention to the fall election, they should design a constructive process that will carry on the work begun by the commission. Otherwise Connecticut, with its stagnant economy and urgent need for tax and budgetary reform, will have wasted yet another golden opportunity.

Susan Merrow is a member of 1000 Friends of Connecticut.