Powell: You won't find 'waste' in Connecticut's budget
Every state election year in Connecticut candidates pledge to cut waste and fraud out of state government's budget, practically as if waste and fraud were line items and part of the platforms of their opponents. The practice is on display lately in a television commercial being broadcast by the campaign of the Republican primary ticket of John McKinney for governor and David Walker for lieutenant governor. The commercial touts their plan for "cutting wasteful spending."
But this sort of analysis of the state budget will not yield much useful information. For the waste in state government is not a matter of budgeting at all but rather of policy. On the whole the state budget reflects well enough the dollar cost of major policies. The serious question is whether those policies accomplish anything in the public interest.
For example, the state budget devotes huge amounts to what is called education. But how much education is actually purchased? Study and test data show that it is much less than assumed, since from half to two-thirds of Connecticut's high school seniors and college freshmen fail high school math and English. That's because Connecticut's foremost educational policy is only social promotion; there are no performance requirements for advancement from grade to grade. This policy has no line item in the budget.
Welfare and child protection are huge line items in the budget too, yet poverty and child neglect and abuse have only worsened as spending on them has grown. Something also is wrong with policy here -- that is, if policy's objective is to increase self-sufficiency and improve children's lives.
Criminal justice presents several big line items in the budget, involving mainly the consequences of drug criminalization and the premium imposed by criminalization on the price of certain popular drugs. Despite this policy's billions in expense over the years, the drug trade and its violence have not diminished. The policy is ineffective but, like the others, is taken for granted.
McKinney and Walker must be credited for addressing costly policy in one respect -- policy on state employee pensions. McKinney and Walker favor putting new state employees into a defined-contribution pension system and phasing out state government's defined-benefit system.
But if the cost of state government is ever to be reduced or even merely controlled, many other mistaken policies will have to be addressed as well. Pledges to reduce "waste and fraud" in government are themselves usually waste and fraud.
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If this week's political street theater in Sprague is any indication, Connecticut can expect a stupid campaign for governor.
The candidate endorsed by the Republican state convention, former Ambassador Tom Foley, went to the little town in the eastern part of the state to hold a press conference blaming Gov. Malloy's anti-business policies for the closing of the Fusion Paperboard mill and the loss of its 140 jobs. When Sprague's first selectwoman, state Sen. Catherine A. Osten, showed up uninvited, Foley blamed her too for not doing enough to help the company stay open.
But last September the company got a $2 million discounted-interest and partly forgivable loan from state government in what ordinarily Foley disparages as the Malloy administration's corporate welfare program. The company's unionized workers had given repeated contract concessions. And the company's hedge fund owner has offered no explanation. So the mill's closing is probably more a matter of general market conditions than anything else.
When Foley's visit to Sprague was over, the governor's campaign responded that the mill closing was the sort of thing Foley himself did when his own investment company bought a failing textile company in Georgia and was unable to turn it around, eventually putting it into reorganizational bankruptcy 18 years ago.
A dubious charge had evoked an irrelevant defense.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.