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State's fiscal health hangs in the balance

By REP. LARRY CAFERO

Publication: The Day

Published December 03. 2012 4:00AM

Just a few short months into the current fiscal year Connecticut is once again facing a fiscal calamity. The most recent estimates put the state's deficit at $365 million, a situation that was both predictable and avoidable.

If we are serious about finally getting the state's finances straightened out, there must be a serious bipartisan solution when the legislature convenes in a special session sometime next month. We look forward to working with Gov. Malloy and the legislative Democrats to find that solution.

The election is over, it is unfortunate that the deficit was not revealed in a more timely fashion, but that is politics. It is time to govern and legislate.

Gov. Malloy, using his authority to make cuts of up to 5 percent within state agencies, has attempted to tackle less than one-third of the problem. More pain is likely to come.

After foisting the largest tax increases in state history on everyone and anything that consumes goods and services in Connecticut in 2011, that fiscal mess was pronounced cured by the governor and his majority party Democrats. That turned out not to be the case. Worse news awaits when the legislature reconvenes for the regular session in January. Budget experts now project that over the next two years the deficit will balloon to $2.2 billion.

We are right back where we started. The deficit was predictable largely because of two factors: anticipated revenues are all off in virtually every category, from personal income to sales and corporate taxes. Raising taxes during a recession proved not to be a good idea.

And secondly, the spending side of the budget was never cut or even remotely curtailed. State spending from the last fiscal year to the one that ends on June 30 will be up by $1.4 billion or 7.2 percent if no adjustments are made.

The governor insists he has "no intention'' of raising taxes "this year.'' We will take him at his word but that leaves us with only one option - spending cuts. The no-layoff agreement with state employee unions prevents us from making any significant adjustments to personnel, the largest portion of any budget.

We stand ready to make some tough decisions that many of us believed should have already been made. We offered our alternative Republican budget again last year that had no tax increases, but were overruled. So be it.

Solutions to fiscal woes can prove fleeting. Connecticut was faced with an $8 billion deficit in 2009 that was erased on paper, fortified by creative accounting, suspect forecasting and other tactics that would never be tolerated if Big Eight Firms were running the books. A $3 billion deficit turned up just 15 months later, the one that the Democrats addressed with the big tax hikes.

The last fiscal year ended with Connecticut's books "balanced.'' Unfortunately that was only achieved on paper as well because hundreds of millions dollars set aside to pay down the state's massive debt were diverted at the last minute to cover operating expenses. That "balance'' quickly vanished when the revenues continued to lag during the summer and fall and spending rolled on unabated.

At a recent hearing the governor's budget chief stated that the prospects of higher federal taxes next year on capital gains would prompt investors to empty their portfolios before Dec. 31, thereby creating a windfall for Connecticut. That is not a fiscal strategy; it is a sad commentary on how we budget for revenue and expenses.

Connecticut cannot afford any more budgetary sleights of hand this time around. More borrowing to stanch the red ink simply will not fly with the financial markets that rate our credit. Connecticut endured a credit downgrade last January and no doubt market analysts will pay close attention to what actions we take over the next month.

Connecticut still has its share of wealthy residents. But recent reports have showed that the state has taken in less than anticipated revenue from high earners. Are we reaching a tipping point of diminishing tax returns from those who create wealth and jobs?

I am hopeful we can reach agreement that is bipartisan and lasting. The Malloy administration inherited a huge deficit when the governor took office in 2011. But not a single Republican voted for the current budget and our proposed solutions were dismissed outright.

Let's hope for a different scenario this time around.

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