Budget 2009: The Small Government Conservative (This Year)

The governor’s annual budget address, much like the State of the Union address the president gives every year, is a reflection of both the governor and the times. As Gov. Rell reinvents herself yet again as a tough fiscal conservative, it’s worth considering past addresses, and examining the rhetoric the governor used in her speech yesterday in that larger context.

Gov. Rell has been our state’s chief executive for nearly five years. Before that, she was Lt. Governor under John Rowland, who had been governor since 1995. And yet, she came before the General Assembly yesterday to insist that the government she heads, and that her party had led for the past decade and a half, is too large, and needs trimming. She referred to the “bloat of bureaucracy” twice and claimed of state government, in one of the speech’s better lines, that

Layer upon layer of bureaucracy has been built so deeply and set so tightly that original goals have been crushed under the weight of permanency.

She also spoke of the need to “shrink government,” and declared that government as it currently exists is simply not affordable.

This is not necessarily a new thing, though her rhetoric concerning fiscal conservatism has increased since 2007, when she memorably said the following:

Today I am proposing the single largest investment in education in Connecticut history: 3.4 billion new dollars over the next five years.

She then explained that:

The decision to raise taxes was not an easy one, I can assure you. But remember, while we are increasing the income tax rate we are substantially increasing state aid to education and providing property tax relief.


In 2008, as economic clouds began to gather, the governor called for a property tax cap following the failure of the legislature to enact any meaningful property tax reform, and she said that “The budget I present to you today does not exceed our state spending cap and it does not raise taxes.” Instead of making sweeping pledges to spend billions on education, the governor in 2008 cautioned that she could not fund every program.

She also railed against bureaucracy in that speech, but specifically at the DOT, which at that point she had proposed splitting into two agencies. In 2006, she made vague reference to bureaucracy again, saying, “We need to break down the barriers of over-regulation and bureaucratic obstinacy,” in order to create new jobs.

In that speech, the governor began to warm to a theme she has returned to often over the past year, that the state budget was analogous to a household budget:

I cannot because the families of Connecticut cannot afford it. Because the families of Connecticut expect us to be as careful with our state budget as they are with their household budgets.

In the 2009 speech, the governor also claimed no tax increases, though she did admit to some fee increases. Indeed, keeping taxes low and shrinking government—including folding the entire department of higher education into the education department—was the central thrust of her speech. Gone was the governor who wanted to leave an unprecedented level of education funding to the children of Connecticut. Gone was the governor who was willing to raise taxes in order to further those goals.

Also, for the first time, the governor used very combative language in her speech. Unlike previous years, where she has proposed her budget and then seemingly forgotten about many of her ideas and initiatives (with a few notable exceptions, including Charter Oak Health Care), the governor seems ready for a fight. In a fascinating moment, she lashed out at those who weren’t with her:

The soothsayers will undoubtedly provide their own interpretations and tell you, in their own, all-knowing ways, what I really meant. The naysayers will tell you it can’t be done, it shouldn’t be done. Well, to the soothsayers and naysayers I say: Step aside. We need leaders. Help me as I lead Connecticut to a smaller, more affordable, more responsive government.

She also had strong words for state employees:

Let me also state unequivocally to all our state employees: You are not the reason, not the cause, of our economic troubles. But you must be a part of the solution – and sooner rather than later.

This is a message to the unions, that they must become part of the solution. Implied is that if they don’t, they will become the problem. It’s also at odds with her earlier statement about the “bloat of bureaucracy.” Who are the bureaucrats causing the supposed bloat? State workers, of course. The olive branch she’s extending to them doesn’t seem quite sincere.

The conclusion to be drawn here is that though this governor has only really given lip service to fiscal conservatism, holding the line on taxes and cutting through bureaucracy in the past, she is far more serious now.

Is that the right conclusion to make?

Rell has been a lot of different things. She began as an ethical crusader, became a champion of education, then the tough-on-crime governor, and now a tax cutting, cost-slashing fiscal conservative. There is no reason to think this isn’t genuine, at least for now. But there’s still a curious lack of focus. The governor is still proposing new spending, on her Connecticut Conservation Corps and regionalization initiatives.
She is also pushing for eliminating various laws, in an attempt to apparently better the quality of life in the state.

Maybe that’s the big idea of her governorship–making Connecticut’s quality of life better. She tried to do it with education. She tried to do it with ethics reform, and strict criminal justice reform. She tried to do it by tearing down billboards, finding ways to lower property taxes and extending health care to those who needed it. Now she’s trying to do it by eliminating laws and making government more accountable and responsible, even as she cuts workers and services. She hasn’t found a lot of success with these sorts of initiatives in the past. One reason may be that she tends not to bring them up again, once they fail.

It makes me wonder: How hard will she push for these cuts? How hard will she push for her other initiatives? Where, exactly, should she apply what limited political pressure as she has available to her? What elements of this budget plan, if any, will last until June?

The speech itself was delivered somewhat better than her televised speech on Monday, despite a few hesitations here and there. It was perhaps the best of her budget speeches in content, rhetoric and delivery, and was met with enthusiastic applause by Republicans many times.

Democrats, however, seem a lot less impressed.

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12 responses to “Budget 2009: The Small Government Conservative (This Year)

  1. What may be different this time is that folks are more willing to listen. The state of the economy has more and more people in shock. So the political leader who comes up with a broad and significant plan to address the needs has a greater degree of political capital than before.

    It seems odd to say, but perhaps the Obama phenomenon of drawing more people into the process will have to work in order for this Republican governor’s plan to come to fruition. Since there is no single Democratic voice or plan out on the table, nor really a platform from which to propose one, the default for citizens who want to see government respond to the crisis will be to rally behind Ms. Rell.

    I’ve been a straight-ticket Democrat all my life (thanks to Richard Nixon), but I’m listening to this governor this time.

  2. AndersonScooper

    Was it me, or was yesterday’s speech more about politics and Rell’s bid for re-election than it was about really solving our budget woes? I mean there was a great deal of posturing and positioning, (that at times reminded me of George Bush.)

    Contrast that with the even-handed, apolitical tone that Ned Lamont uses in this Hartford Courant editorial:
    http://mobile.courant.com/inf/infomo;jsessionid=24EFEB6D5BB8EBE04568.553?view=opinion_and_politics_item&feed:a=courant_5min&feed:c=opinionpolitics&feed:i=44809437

    Rell seems to be firing up her rhetoric going into this budget battle, at a time when most taxpayers would like less heat and more substance.

    Finally, this idea that the sky is falling is a joke. Two years ago Rell wanted to increase the income tax by 10%, and now any talk of a marginal increase is tantamount to Armageddon?

    Ugh.

  3. Finally, this idea that the sky is falling is a joke. Two years ago Rell wanted to increase the income tax by 10%, and now any talk of a marginal increase is tantamount to Armageddon?

    You mean, it’s not falling? Two years ago was two years ago. The sky is falling.

    By the way, Lamont’s and Cibes’s piece was more political than Rell’s, and that makes sense: Rell is forced to deal with a problem that has been building for almost two decades, while Lamont is able to fire off drivel in an attempt to remain relevant. (It’s amazing that you hate people from Greenwich except when they win a Democratic primary.)

  4. AndersonScooper

    I hate people from Greenwich?? LOL.

    I guess you’re saying that my belief that the top of the food chain could pay a point ot two more is the equivalent of hate?

    The current problem is simply a recession. We’ve had them before.

    The trick is to pull together to get ourselves out of it, and to try and make sure. We don’t do anything to exacerbate or unnecessarily prolong the malaise.

    The greatest emphasis should be in restoring confidence, and getting everyone back employed and paying taxes.

    Frankly, I don’t see the Governor doing either, and I’m coming to believe her emphasis is all wrong.

    Me, I’m happy to sacrifice by paying more taxes, if it helps to get people jobs.

  5. Me, I’m happy to sacrifice by paying more taxes, if it helps to get people jobs.

    No need to pay more taxes; instead we should address your other point:

    The greatest emphasis should be in restoring confidence, and getting everyone back employed and paying taxes.

    Massive highway infrastructure improvements could do that, we could bond it and pay it off with tolls.

    Is there some other way to dump billions into the CT economy without having it come back and bite us?

    What else could we do that would justify billions and create it’s own revenue upon completion?

    (Mass transit won’t, it always winds up being subsidized.)

  6. AndersonScooper

    ACR–

    I’m with you. Widen the damn highways.

    The mass transit junkies are putting theory before practice. We live in an automobile society, and that’s not changing any time soon.

    Stratford, btw, would make a great regional airport that could serve both B’port and New Haven. (Tweed is on the wrong side of the Q bridge.)

  7. Me, I’m happy to sacrifice by paying more taxes, if it helps to get people jobs.

    When was the last time a tax hike in Connecticut got people jobs?

  8. When was the last time a tax hike in Connecticut got people jobs?

    Jack ,do you mean private, or public sector jobs??

  9. I’m with you. Widen the damn highways.

    Not enough – we need to something no other state or nation has ever done and we need to do it on a grand scale.

    Something that’ll cost BILLIONS and serve our descendent’s well for at least a century and a half; done right – a millennia.
    (The Romans built roads that well, why don’t we?)

    A huge wide new I-95 over the highway that already exists.
    (We would never have to remove snow from the original I-95 again.)

    Only 6 – 8 exits; a “break down” lane at least two lanes wide so as to accommodate emergency & service vehicles.

    We already own the land which is generally a major portion of a new highway budget.

    It would cost a ton of dough and building it would directly employ 1000’s; the indirect or collateral jobs it would create would be countless.

    People would happily pay to drive on an actual superhighway, and pay they would!

  10. People would happily pay to drive on an actual superhighway, and pay they would!

    Are you thinking of it as a publicly or privately operated endeavor?

  11. Are you thinking of it as a publicly or privately operated endeavor?

    Public would give us a better shot at a long term revenue stream.

  12. Are you thinking of it as a publicly or privately operated endeavor?

    On the other hand, we can’t let anyone at the DOT try to run it, the place is full of idiots.

    IE: climbing lanes (like on I-84) that end on top of hills, instead of half way down the next; leaving trucks w/semi-trailers stuck at the top at 5 mph causing accidents.
    CT is the only state with such design and the accidents from those points are trackable, yet DOT does nothing to correct any of them.

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