Finance, not guns, state's top issue

Welcoming on Wednesday the 2013 session of the General Assembly in the emotional shadow of the school massacre in Newtown, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy introduced and praised two of that town's heroic public officials seated in the Hall of the House, First Selectwoman Pat Llodra and School Superintendent Janet Robinson. "Your compassion and leadership over the past month have been an inspiration to Connecticut and to me personally," the governor said.

But having appointed a commission to study public policy response to the massacre, the governor seemed to presume upon its recommendations. "More guns are not the answer," he declared. "Freedom is not a handgun on the hip of every teacher, and security should not mean a guard posted outside every classroom. That is not who we are in Connecticut, and it is not who we will allow ourselves to become."

Maybe not. Yet as the governor spoke Newtown was stationing two police officers at every school in town on an indefinite basis - just what the head of the National Rifle Association was denounced as a kook for urging. Have NRA kooks taken over Newtown? Or has that tortured community realized that armed guards have more immediate relevance to the horror than anything else proposed?

Despite the continuing economic decline that also covers the state with gloom, the governor plausibly claimed credit for a few achievements in the first two years of his administration. State-financed pre-school enrollments for poor children have been increased by a thousand and four underperforming local schools have volunteered for a sort of receivership under the state Education Department, with more underperforming schools likely to follow. Storm-response standards for electric utilities have been established. A new state energy policy emphasizes increasing the accessibility of natural gas and thus increasing consumer choice.

Less plausibly the governor claimed that $180 million in state government subsidies have "leveraged" $2 billion in private investment in Connecticut, though this has not yet proved to be more than corporate welfare and government's picking patronage winners and losers in the economy.

Also less plausibly the governor portrayed his budgeting as a great success, having closed in his first year most of a catastrophic deficit bequeathed by his predecessors. But the deficit really hasn't been closed at all. Just a few weeks ago its recurrence required a special session of the legislature for an emergency reduction of aid to the helpless and politically irrelevant, and another huge deficit is forecast for the next budget year. If, having arranged the largest tax increase in state history, the governor now keeps his pledge to avoid more tax increases, will state government continue to extract sacrifice from the helpless and politically irrelevant, or will some sacrifice at last be demanded from the government class itself?

Even if so, it will be pretty late, judging from "Connecticut's List of Lasts" published by the Yankee Institute for Public Policy as the legislature convened. The state, the institute noted, lately has been ranked worst in the country for public debt per capita, public credit quality, living in retirement, fiscal policy, and tax burden as measured by "Tax Freedom Day."

Of course those criteria involve political ideology, but the severe weakening of Connecticut's private economy over the last two decades is not in dispute. This weakening has corresponded with the steady enlargement of government. Has this been only coincidence and not correlation? In any case what evidence can Connecticut produce that still-larger government will do the trick this time?

Getting more value out of the government Connecticut already has remains the most important work of the governor and the legislature, far more important than guns, whose most effective regulation, as the governor himself acknowledged Wednesday, will have to come at the national level.

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