Confessions of a state rep: 'We need to be tough and disciplined ... Don't hold your breath'

When it comes to budgeting dysfunction, the state of Connecticut is in a class by itself. Decades of politically driven, short-sighted, “something-for-everyone” budgeting has put the state in the fiscal soup.

There is plenty of blame to go around, but since I’ve been in the legislature for 17 years, let’s focus on our role. When I arrived in the legislature I was surprised to discover a huge mystery surrounding what we spend as a state and what we actually accomplish with that money.

I became an advocate for Results Based Accountability, a proven way to measure concretely how much the state was spending on specific programs, what the money was being spent on, and whether or not anyone was better off for the spending. It took me a couple sessions before I realized how politically difficult it was to implement such a simple concept.

Accountability is tough to put on the table when it comes to pet programs and projects legislators pursue. It’s fine to scrub someone else’s program, not yours. Multiply that by 187 — the number of members in the Connecticut General Assembly — and you see what a quagmire state budgeting becomes.

But while our biennial budget battles get most of the attention, we have another huge problem that politicians would rather ignore: the state-employee pension fund. We have been shorting it for decades to the tune of billions of dollars. The state now carries the highest per capita public pension debt of any state in the union.

So what should we do? On the pension side, the state did actually take a concrete step when it began the slow process toward a pension system based on what employees invest themselves — known as a “defined contribution” plan. It will be a slow transition from the “defined benefit” plans, which have guaranteed pension payments determined not by what employees actually socked away, but rather by union contracts.

There is much more the legislature can do concerning pensions.

First, the state needs to eliminate “longevity pay,” meaning raises for state workers based not on performance but on how long they’ve been employed.

Second, we need to implement “anti-spiking” rules that prevent employees from loading up on overtime in their last few years of service in order to boost their pension checks.

Third, we need to overhaul how we fund our teachers’ pensions. Currently, local governments negotiate teacher pensions and the state pays. That lack of local “skin in the game” creates an incentive for the locals to promise their teachers money the state must deliver. The legislature’s recent proposal that localities be called on to immediately step up and fund a significant share of their teachers’ pensions was unfair. But the idea that local government begin to chip in is a good one.

As for making our biennial budget system actually work, I have another suggestion: Currently as programs make their way through the legislative budget process, they end up in the 57-member Appropriations Committee, a body that has to sift through such diverse programs as energy, health care, child abuse and neglect, and transportation, just to name a few. That’s an impossible job for such a large, diverse body.

Let the committees charged with the responsibility for different agencies present the initial budget blueprints for those agencies.

For example, the Committee on Children, of which I am House chair, oversees $5.8 billion in spending on children and families. It is in the best position to provide the blueprint for how much (and even whether) to spend money on myriad programs meant to benefit kids and families.

This approach would better inform Appropriations on need and cost, so that it can make sensible, realistic budget choices.

Finally, I’ve recently taken criticism for my stand, given the state’s budget problems, to defund the slave-ship Amistad. Those critics completely miss the point and actually aid and abet the current dysfunction in how the state budgets.

I recognize the money spent on the Amistad (the mission of which I support) is a drop in the ocean (although to paraphrase the late, great U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen, “a quarter of a million dollars here and a quarter of a million dollars there and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”) Yet the Amistad is a symbol for how Connecticut budgets. Allocating dollars with no hard-nosed analysis of what we’re actually getting for that money.

How many times have I heard, “Just give us more money, representative, and we’ll solve the problem.”

The state can’t afford that approach anymore. We need to be tough and disciplined about actual accountability.

Don’t hold your breath.

State Rep. Diana Urban, a Democrat, represents the towns of Stonington and North Stonington, where she lives.

 

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