'Business-as-usual' mentality won out over real change
Facing massive deficit projections, the past General Assembly session was among the most contentious and longest in Connecticut history. We invited freshman Rep. Christopher Coutu, a Republican who voted against the budget that was finally adopted, and House Rep. Diana Urban, a Democrat and five-term incumbent who voted in favor, to reflect on the budget debate and what needs to change going forward. Rep. Coutu serves the 47th District, including Canterbury, Scotland, Sprague and Norwich and sits on the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee. Rep. Urban serves the 43rd District of Stonington and North Stonington and is on the Appropriations Committee.
A year ago at this time I was knocking on doors in Canterbury, Norwich, Scotland and Sprague telling people I would hold lawmakers in Hartford accountable if they elected me as their state representative. I was prepared to challenge the typical tax-and-spend ideology that's dominated the Capitol culture for so long.
I remember my first day in the House chamber - optimism in the air despite a gloomy budget outlook. Despite being a member of the Republican minority party, I felt I could be part of making fundamental changes in state government. After all, the leaders of the Democrats' veto-proof majority were assuring everyone that it would not be business as usual. Legislators from both sides of the aisle talked about taking that leap to prioritize the core functions of government and hold state agencies accountable for their decisions.
Unfortunately, it wasn't long before I realized that much of what my majority colleagues had been saying was little more than lip service. As Connecticut residents struggled to meet their financial obligations and confronted job losses and rising foreclosure rates, the legislature dithered.
Our state budget deficit surpassed $9 billion. And how did Democrats respond? They put out a proposal that carried $3.3 billion in new taxes. Even worse, they proposed saddling the state with an unprecedented amount of debt.
Being a member of the minority party, I was certainly busy, serving on four committees. Republicans hold just 37 of the legislature's 151 seats in the House of Representatives, so members of the GOP must serve on numerous committees to fill all the slots.
I listened to testimony on hundreds of bills: Decriminalization of marijuana, religious freedom disputes, government-run health care and the right to bear arms. I tried to turn the discussion back to our economy - no easy task with a veto-proof majority pushing what I considered a hyper-liberal agenda.
As businesses slashed jobs, lawmakers talked about the size of chicken coops. As residents sought unemployment benefits, legislators talked frog dissection.
In my view, that was unconscionable, and it wasn't what I came to Hartford to do.
Watching the legislature procrastinate instead of tackling our state's financial headaches shocked many constituents, who called and e-mailed with questions about our multibillion-dollar deficit. I have to be honest: I was surprised, too. After all, we were all told that "business-as-usual" was history.
Municipal officials were frequent visitors, asking the legislature to turn its eye toward issues driving property tax increases their constituents couldn't afford. We listed to selectmen and mayors express their concerns about state mandates and Democrat proposals to decrease state aid to cities and towns. With my Republican colleagues, I amplified their concerns through forums we organized at the Capitol.
Democrats eventually used their veto-proof power and passed a budget that carried $1.3 billion in new taxes. And there was a new extreme measure to gain more revenue: borrowing against $1.4 billion in anticipated lottery revenues.
And there was that tax increase on employers.
This 10 percent tax on corporate profits is an extension of a legislative culture that hurts valuable employers such as Computer Science Corporation, Pfizer and Electric Boat. We can only assume that Connecticut's anti-business atmosphere pinched Pratt & Whitney, which recently announced it would close operations in Cheshire and East Hartford.
Throughout the months-long budget debate, my message was relatively simple: Let's streamline government, prioritize our spending and, above all, protect jobs.
The alternative isn't working. Democrats said their smash-and-grab approach to generating more revenue would get Connecticut back on track, yet nearly every section of our economy continues to struggle. Revenue projections are off, and we already have deficits pushing $500 million after four weeks under the majority party's budget.
That's depressing news for residents of this state, who will soon learn the extra money from fees and taxes Democrats demanded won't fix the state's problems as promised.
Now, more than ever, it's time to keep campaign promises - namely, extinguishing the business-as-usual approach in Hartford. Though I was on the losing side of the budget vote, I'm proud to be an independent voice in the legislature pushing the common sense principle you use in your household: If you don't have the money, tighten your belt.
But I also learned that there are limits on what one individual can accomplish in Hartford, no matter how hard he or she works. Unless voters elect other lawmakers who are willing to end business as usual, and not just talk about it, the legislature may never bring state government spending under control.