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.