6:12 PM EST, February 8, 2013
I seem to have misunderstood in some fundamental way.
Listening to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in his budget address this week, I understood him to say that he prizes "simple principles" that would lead to an "honest, balanced budget."
I also heard him bemoan problems that he inherited: "problems that included a worst-in-the-nation per capita deficit; a budget that relied too heavily on gimmicks and one-time revenues; financial commitments that, if we had failed to act, would fall on the shoulders of our children."
What happened next was like one of the Disney fantasy movies I grew up with. It was as if an evil wizard seized control of Malloy's mind and body and shouted, "Hahahaha! I'll make him do exactly the opposite of what he believes in. And the best part is: He won't realize it's happening."
This budget plan is many things. It may even be the best budget plan anyone could come up with under the circumstances. What it is not is simple or clear or gimmick-free or averse to borrowing or to pushing payments down the road. It is so completely the embodiment of everything Malloy opposes that we cannot rule out the possibility of some enchantment.
Let us begin with the craziest and most obvious twist: the moment when Malloy discovered his inner Oprah and abruptly announced his intention to exempt most of us from the property tax on motor vehicles. "You're not paying car tax, and you're not paying car tax, and you're not paying car tax!"
His moral reasoning was sound. Car taxes are hideously unfair and capricious. Car taxes in Hartford, a very poor city, are grotesquely high compared to the affluent surrounding towns.
On the other hand, you have to ask yourself whether making cars cheaper to own is really good long-range planning. Down the road, so to speak, don't we want to have fewer cars, better mass transit, more affordable housing and better land-use planning?
But forget all that. The proposal is the equivalent of the guy in the bar who insists on picking up everybody's tab for the night, even though all of his friends know he's broke. State government still runs in the red. Malloy was proposing to make half a billion in property taxes go poof, but he also said he would "hold harmless" the cities and towns. How does that work?
Most of what makes this budget proposal work is borrowing, borrowing, borrowing. Of course, one great thing about having so much debt is that you can occasionally restructure it. So Malloy is also talking about revamping some of Jodi Rell's ill-advised borrowing and pushing the payments on it from 2015 to 2018. So what was all that stuff about the shoulders of our children? My kid will be paying state taxes in 2018 and so will Malloy's.
The final paradox is that area of clarity, which Malloy has been saying would be a watchword of his administration. I'm not the most budget-savvy guy in the world, but I expected, for the first time in my reporting life, to be able to look at the numbers on one side and the numbers on the other side and see how they add up.
Instead, we're back to the same old shell game. It doesn't seem to make much difference which party is in power. Either way, the budget guys like to keep their hands moving quicker than your eye.
Step right up. Who wants to play? You, sir? Let's slide $74 million out of Payments in Lieu of Taxes and into Education Cost Sharing. Point to the money and win a stuffed Brendan Sharkey. Ohhhhh! Bad luck. Want to try again? How about $56 million from the video slots? Round and round we go and now it's $56 million we borrow for capital improvements. Where is it now? Ohhhhh! So close!
Remember when I said maybe this is the best anybody could do? The problem here is: I have no idea whether that's true. And that's exactly what is meant to happen. Neither the speech nor the budget itself is intended to give the average citizen any sense of what's going on. That would only upset us.
Colin McEnroe appears from 1 to 2 p.m. weekdays on WNPR-FM (90.5) and blogs at http://courantblogs.com/colin-mcenroe/. He can be reached at Colin@wnpr.org.
Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant