You’re not running to be Connecticut boss, Bob
Dusting off a concern raised by the fiscal conservative policy group The Yankee Institute, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski last week criticized the collection of about 200 fees and taxes in Connecticut. He argued, as did Yankee Institute in a 2019 policy paper, that the revenue raised by all those fees and taxes is not worth the cost of administering them or the inconvenience they cause citizens and businesses.
Collectively, the revenue produced accounts for about one-quarter of 1 percent of the state budget.
Given that small total, equivalent to a rounding error, one might expect Stefanowski’s reference to these “nuisance taxes” to be but a bullet point in his overall policy proposals for spending and taxation in Connecticut. Instead, the Republican who seeks to unseat Democratic incumbent Ned Lamont made this sliver of state revenue the central topic of his press conference.
He promised that a broader outline about his plans for tax relief will be forthcoming. He better not wait too long. The election is less than two months away.
On the subject of all these fees and taxes, the Yankee Institute and Stefanowski have a point. They should be assessed to see if they still make sense and whether the administrative costs to collect them outstrips the revenue produced.
There are permit fees for hunting deer, to obtain a general contractor license, to lease oyster grounds, or open a gas station. You need to pay for a license to be a home inspector, and pay a tax to operate a dry-cleaning shop or to drill a well.
The fees are based on a logical approach to paying for governance. There is a cost to maintaining the forests where the deer are hunted, to assuring a contractor has the necessary skills, to preserving water quality for those oysters, and regulating those gas stations, dry cleaners, and drillers to assure public safety. Why not assess fees on those using or providing the services, rather than pushing the full burden on all taxpayers?
Perhaps some of this bureaucracy and the associated fees can and should be eliminated. Does Connecticut still need to charge a fee to license TV repairpersons? Is that even an occupation anymore? And why should someone be charged a fee for filing a claim of a defective car under the lemon law?
Undertaking an objective analysis of these various fees, potentially leading to legislative recommendations to eliminate or modify some, makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense, what was instead concerning, was Stefanowski’s declaration that he would simply order his tax commissioner to unilaterally stop collecting all of them, while awaiting the legislature to bend to his will and officially repeal them.
That approach shows a troubling disregard for the checks and balances built into our Connecticut Constitution, just as they are built into the U.S. Constitution. The state legislature has the power of the purse. It decides what the state spends and how revenues are raised. A governor can use his or her veto power to block legislative tax-and-spending proposals. A governor can also utilize the office’s bully pulpit to propose fiscal policy.
But the governor is not a king. He cannot direct what taxes and fees will be collected and which will not.
You’re not running to be the boss of Connecticut, Mr. Stefanowski. If elected, you can’t just issue orders. To get things done you will have to work with the legislature and respect its role in governing.
In trying to make a big deal out of this tiny slice of the budgetary pie, Stefanowski did not do much to convince voters to support his candidacy. But in saying he would disregard the will of the legislature and the Connecticut Constitution, he may have given voters a reason not to support him.