Editorial: We Need Answers To These Three Questions

Editorial

The next governor of Connecticut, whoever it is, will be saddled with massive financial problems that will all but consume his term in office. Sadly, though, the top candidates for governor have given the citizens very little in the way of detailed plans for how they plan to get the state out of the mess.

It’s not hard to describe the problem: The state’s revenue falls short of expenses, and the biggest long-term expenses are the state’s unfunded obligations to state employees, along with road, bridge and other infrastructure costs.

So candidates should be specific about how they plan to solve the problem. Cut spending, raise taxes, or both? Where would they cut, and where would they tax? Does the math work? These decisions will have serious long-term implications for the financial health of the state. Only by knowing how the candidates will approach the problems — with specific details — will Connecticut’s voters be armed with the information they need to make the best choice.

Almost every one of the candidates fails this test so far. Instead of detailed solutions clearly laid out on their campaign websites, we get restatements of the problems, bromides, heated rhetoric, Malloy-blame and pie-in-the-sky promises.

We don’t need candidates’ fury. We have enough. We need their answers to three specific questions:

1. Where is the money coming from? The next biennial budget faces an estimated shortfall of more than $4 billion. Candidates should state clearly how they plan to solve that problem. If it’s by raising taxes, they should explain which taxes. If they plan to cut taxes, they will need to explain where they plan to cut an equal amount of spending or how they plan to raise revenue to fill the gap. Simply saying “I will not balance the budget on the backs of workers” leaves unanswered the question of how the candidate will balance it. If the plan is to restructure the state employee retirement plans, the candidate must explain, in detail, how.

2. How should Connecticut’s economy grow? Of course we need jobs. Every candidate promises jobs. But there are many strategies to developing the state’s economy. Candidates should be specific: Do their plans promise job growth through casino expansion? Through more incentives to corporations? Through cuts to the corporate tax? Through public-private partnerships? How much more or less money will come into the state with those changes, and in what timeframe?

3. Who will have to make sacrifices? No candidate wants to alienate voters by telling them they’re going to have to shell out more money to the state. But glossing over this part of the problem is dishonest. If the governor wants a tax cut, then revenues will go down, likely shifting the burden to town budgets. If the governor wants to cut expenses, that means social services, schools or state employees could sacrifice. Finding “efficiencies” is a great idea, but even if the state were to find $1 billion in operational savings — as suggested by the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth — that still leaves the state billions in the red. Candidates should be honest about it. Those who offer nothing but glowing promises have either have no idea how to make them come true or are being opaque.

The full answer to any of these questions is in the math. Candidates must show us the money.

But so far, most have offered little in the way of details. Their campaign websites, where most voters have the best chance to learn where the candidates stand, mostly underline problems and suggest few real solutions.

Democratic candidate Ned Lamont, for example, talks about “A Fair Economy” mostly in terms of social issues.

A section on “Creating Jobs” comes closest to laying out a financial plan, but he refers only to a “strategic plan with detailed expansion of revenue streams.”

That means tax hikes, and he gives no details. The rest is pablum.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Boughton. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

Republican candidate Mark Boughton also complains about the financial state of the state, and he takes square aim at the income tax, which he promises to eliminate, saying he has a “phased plan.” But what is the plan?

He promises job growth and economic expansion, all based on getting rid of the income tax. But where is the math? Where are the details?

The income tax accounts for nearly half of state revenue. If it can be eliminated without decimating schools, roads and public safety agencies, he should tell us how.

Republican challenger Tim Herbsthas no shortage of vitriol for Gov. Dannel Malloy on his website, and he is clear about what he would like to do, which mostly involves cutting taxes and “dismantling” the Department of Motor Vehicles. But after the taxes are cut and the DMV is dismantled, what happens? Even the elimination of the DMV won’t put a dent in the long-term problems.

He promises to “tackle the protracted and sustained budgetary crises Connecticut has endured … to restore predictability and confidence to our state,” but he doesn’t say how. More pablum.

The Democratic mayor of Bridgeport, Joe Ganim, is big on investing in cities.

Beyond that, his website offers no guidance on how to solve the state’s financial issues. None at all.

Mr. Ganim, who was convicted of corruption in 2003 and spent time in federal prison, has a special obligation to be transparent, but so far, he’s falling short.

Independent Oz Griebel focuses on job growth. He acknowledges that “Connecticut faces major challenges” but is short on details about how to navigate them.

He wants to expand transportation initiatives but is shy about whether that means tolls or taxes. He believes in partnerships but doesn’t say how that will save money or increase revenue.

On taxes, he says the state’s “municipal property tax system will be up for discussion.” If that’s shorthand for something, it’s a mystery, but it doesn’t sound good.

Republican Bob Stefanowski draws himself as a Reagan Republican who, like Mr. Boughton, wants to phase out the income tax, as well as just about every other tax in existence. He believes this will rectify the economic climate, attract businesses and, presumably, bring in more revenue, but the details are utterly absent.

He supports zero-based budgeting and insists that “there are plenty of opportunities to identify savings and efficiencies,” but how much, exactly, is “plenty”? Is it enough to balance out what would be lost in revenue to tax cuts? He does mention a “defined contribution plan for nonvested [state] employees” and to “‘revisit’ overall contract extension.” That means he plans to ask state employees to give back a lot. How much? Impossible to tell.

“We need to cut the wasteful spending habits of Dan Malloy and the career politicians and reinvest money in our infrastructure to the benefit of everyone in this state,” Mr. Stefanowski says. Without details, that’s a meaningless sentence, but there’s no shortage of that sentiment among the top candidates. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do voters a bit of good.

Republican Steve Obsitnik, who got enough votes during the convention to qualify for the primary, says precious little on his website. He wants to make Connecticut “more affordable by making state government smaller and more efficient” and will use “a common-sense business approach” to save “upwards of $1 billion annually.” Fine, but how?

He also promises to create 300,000 jobs. Great, but how?

But then there’s Republican David Stemerman, who alone among the candidates has presented voters with some details of his plan. He gives pages of details about his plan to get the economy growing. He says he’d drop the income tax rate to 5 percent at the top and gives details on brackets. He gives specifics on changes to corporate taxes. He cites the Fiscal Stability Commission’s report (apparently he’s read it). And while his tax cut plans and Mr. Stefanowski’s are similar, Mr. Stemerman backs it up by suggesting ways to save money, for example, by privatizing some social services.

More impressive is his take on the big question: How to handle the underfunded pension problem. While acknowledging the unfairness of it all, he says clearly: “State employees will not receive the benefits they were promised, and have not had accurate information about the underfunded status of the plans in order to save and plan for their own retirement.” He offers a number of solutions that are sure to displease many and delight others, but the point is that he offers them.

As campaigns wear on, there’s a tendency for frontrunners to offer less in the way of specifics and for underdogs to offer more. That’s what Connecticut voters are seeing, even at this point, months away from the primary.

But that’s disrespectful to the voters, and it underestimates their intelligence. The citizens of Connecticut need clearly articulated, detailed plans, so they can cast votes based on the policies — not the personalities — of the candidates.

Smokescreens won’t fool anyone. Candidates must be able to answer those three simple questions, or they should seriously reconsider whether they have what it takes to lead this state out of its mess.