Big task, big ideas, likely controversy

The state will soon get the results of another study intended to help it fix its problems.

I know, in one of my recent columns I noted that Connecticut seems to produce many more studies than it does results. But you have to hope, right?

This is a big one. Its name suggests the breadth of its task — the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth.

As anyone who has not been locked in solitary confinement for the past decade should know Connecticut has not had fiscal stability or much economic growth for a long time. So the legislature was asking a lot when it formed the commission.

Obtaining fiscal stability is vital to producing economic growth. The fiscal instability Connecticut has seen over a long period does not encourage businesses to expand, locate or even remain in the state. With the legislature constantly facing deficits, businesses can never know what new tax or fee it may impose, and that means uncertainty, which businesses don’t like.

The other side of that coin is that growth, not more tax increases, is the best way to produce the revenues necessary to steady the ship of state.

The commission started meeting in December 2017 and includes people who have had much success.

Commission co-chairs are Robert Patricelli, who has made his fortune launching and flipping health-care companies, and James Smith, chairman and former CEO of Webster Bank.

Others members include Cindi Bigelow, CEO of the family-run Bigelow Tea; Jim Loree, president and CEO of Stanley Black & Decker; Chris Swift, chairman and CEO of the Hartford; and Bruce Alexander, vice president of State Affairs and Campus Development at Yale University.

State labor leaders are complaining the commission was stacked in favor of business interests. Meanwhile, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association is anticipating recommendations that can help state and municipal governments curb labor costs, including pension obligations that are eating up ever large chunks of the state budget.

“It appears the fix is in,” AFL-CIO President Lori President told reporters last week, addressing labor’s fears it will be targeted.

The commission expects to release its recommendations late this month or early next. A spokesman for the commission has been contacting newspaper editorial boards, including this one, to set up meetings to pitch its still undisclosed proposals.

What the commission will say remains a well-kept secret. But in an interview with the Connecticut Mirror, Patricelli suggested the commission will not be calling for small adjustments to jigger tax policy and spending priorities.

“Go big or go home. I think that’s our internal mantra,” Particelli told the Mirror.

One person intrigued by the prospect of the commission producing some big ideas is R. Nelson “Oz” Griebel, a businessman and former Republican turned politically unaffiliated, who is making a long-shot independent run for governor with Monte Frank, previously registered as a Democrat and now Griebel’s running mate. Frank is a recent past president of the Connecticut Bar Association.

“We have to come at these issues with some very different ideas, both on a tax policy side as well as the pension and unfunded liability side,” Griebel said when the two candidates sat down with our editorial board last week.

Griebel contended an independent governor would be in a better position to push some radical change than would be a governor beholden to one party or the other, and the associated special interests. Of course, he would also not have a party to turn to for support.

Griebel knows the frustration of working on a commission whose ideas are largely ignored. In the early 2000s, he was appointed chair of the Transportation Strategy Board. Among its recommendations were completing Route 11, widening Interstate 95 from Branford to Rhode Island, and upgrading the state’s deep-water ports, including New London.

The board also proposed how to pay for it — hiking the fuel tax 3 cents per gallon per year for five years and adding half-percent to the sales tax. It reported that tolls might be needed to fund specific improvements.

Elected leaders found those recommendations politically unpalatable and opted instead to keep ignoring the problems.

“We still have all these transportation needs. They’ve grown more expensive (to fix). In all likelihood, if (the) recommendations made back then had been implemented, we’d not be in the mess we are today,” said Frank.

At some point, the state’s problems will grow so severe that sensible recommendations can’t be ignored for political expediency. If we’re not there yet, we’re close.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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