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Connecticut faces five-alarm fiscal crisis

It is worse than we thought it was. And we already thought it was very bad.

Connecticut now faces deficit projections that rival those when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy first took office in 2011. Back then the governor pushed through the legislature a combination of labor concessions, staff reductions through attrition and a big tax increase to rebalance the budget.

His calculation, however, was that the economy would soon see a significant rebound, growing tax revenues and returning the state’s fiscal situation to some level of normalcy. It did not happen, which Malloy now concedes.

He attributes it to a slow national recovery that is a product of the precipitous collapse that preceded it — the Great Recession. Indeed, to find a recovery period this difficult, economists have to look back to the 1930s and the struggle to recover from the Great Depression.

The governor’s critics say Malloy seeks to escape his share of the blame, and that of the Democratic-controlled legislature, for leaning too heavily on tax increases and undermining the recovery. And Republicans like to point a finger at the governor’s fellow Democrat in the White House, conveniently forgetting a Republican president helped dig the hole to begin with.

It hardly matters. When the house is burning is not the time to argue over who caused it. On Thursday the nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated Connecticut is running a $266 million deficit for the current fiscal year that ends June 30. This follows a special legislative session in December that was supposed to avoid any deficit.

OFA also projected the budget for the following fiscal year, which the legislature approved in 2015 as year two in the two-year budget cycle, is $900 million in the red. That number represents 4.5 percent of the budget. In his address to the legislature earlier this month, Malloy proposed $570 million in cuts to that second year of the budget. While they appeared draconian at the time, it now looks like the cuts fell $330 million short.

But wait, there’s more!

Earlier estimates showed the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 fiscal year budgets faced deficits of $1.7 billion and $1.9 billion respectively if nothing changed. Given the new projections, the state is probably now looking at projected deficits in excess of $2 billion in each of those years, about 10 percent of current spending.

The major cause is that income tax receipts tied to investment earnings are coming out far short of projections. Connecticut is particularly susceptible to such downturns.

The bottom line is things are going to have to change dramatically when it comes to state spending.

Yet rather than call the fire department, Democratic legislative leaders are acting as if they can put out Connecticut’s burning house with the garden hose.

“Today’s projections reinforce the need to find additional efficiencies and savings across government,” said Senate President Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.

Additional efficiencies? Does the Senate president really think that old pabulum will reassure anyone that things aren’t so bad?

House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, offered more of the same.

“Savings and efficiency must be the priority, where accountability of state agencies for every taxpayer dollar is the new watchword,” he said.

Yeah, that will fix things.

Malloy sounded like the realist on the Democratic side.

“State government’s going to get substantially smaller in the not-too-distant future,” he said.

It has to.

Malloy again said he would not support tax increases. It is the right approach. More taxes now will only serve as a drag on economic growth.

“We are scared to death,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby. That may be too much honesty.

How to fix Connecticut’s fiscal house and get the economy moving are the prime issues for the 2016 state legislative campaign (Malloy’s term runs another two years). If Republicans have a plan they best make it the centerpiece of their collective campaign as they seek to gain seats in the state House and Senate.

Democrats, meanwhile, will have some explaining to do.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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