Set aside surplus, Conn. will need it

Declaring a budget surplus is one of Connecticut's most cherished and bipartisan political traditions. We declare so many of them, confused taxpayers are left to wonder how the state manages to celebrate surpluses and suffer from smothering debt at the same time.

The basic difference is this: surpluses are modest, the debt isn't. It would take decades of surpluses to pay off the debt if the broken pension fund is included, as it should be. The surpluses are in the millions, even in the hundreds of millions and they are short term. The debt is in the billions, the tens of billions actually, and is long term and often increased to keep the state going for the short term. Governors of both parties have been known to treat borrowed funds as revenues, which helps to build surpluses while increasing debt.

The state is currently enjoying a $506 million surplus, up from $273 million a month ago and said to have been created by a turnaround in the economy and a soaring stock market. Or, if you prefer, the state is currently enjoying that surplus because the governor and legislature agreed to defer hundreds of millions of dollars in debt payments until after the November election.

Both are true. The Malloy administration replaced Republican fiscal gimmicks with Democratic gimmicks but the results are quite similar.

Also true, according to both the Offices of Fiscal Analysis and Policy and Management are looming deficits for the years 2016, 2017 and 2018. The administration's own Office of Policy and Management predicts deficits for those years at $612 million, $432.5 million and $378.3 million, so you needn't be much of a fiscal analyst to realize those deficits will speedily wipe out that $506 million surplus and then some.

So what's to be done with the $506 million or whatever the surplus turns out to be?

Republicans are speculating Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will use around $925 million in surplus and reserve funds for an election year tax cut, but Gov. Malloy has declined to comment on that possibility. He has, however, hinted vaguely about "investing" in the always popular working families and education constituencies without saying how. The governor will offer his recommendations in his budget address next month, but he hinted Thursday he would recommend that the taxpayers "share in the recovery" - such as it is.

Not willing to be trumped by the governor this election year, the Republican minority wants to take about half of the surplus to offer three limited tax cuts for businesses and consumers. Republican House Leader Larry Cafero said the cuts would not add to the deficit. Truth is, neither his tax cuts nor any the Democrats might propose would contribute to reducing the debt either.

State Comptroller Kevin Lembo, whose candor on the state's fiscal condition does not always please his fellow Democrats, but sometimes makes him look like the only grownup in the room, has a more sensible alternative. He wants the surplus to go into the state's Rainy Day Fund, which is maintained for the times the economy isn't flourishing and the stock market isn't soaring.

Mr. Lembo wants the fund to have a reserve level of 15 percent of spending, which is considerably beyond the 10 percent currently required by statute and would require legislative action.

He makes two hard to dispute points. If the state had had a 15 percent Rainy Day Fund, "it would have weathered the 2009 recession far better." And, citing the state's economic history, he notes that unanticipated revenue windfalls brought almost $5 billion into the state's coffers since 1990. Most of that money was not applied to the debt, but spent by both Democratic and Republican administrations.

With an election looming, there will be the temptation to spend some or all of the surplus, and more, on one deserving constituency or another, but that won't play this time. We have been through rough times in the state and nation and happy days aren't quite here again and may not be for some time. The surplus is around $500 million, the debt, $50 billion. Spending the surplus is a sensible option only for politicians focused on re-election.

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