Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Down On Points, Rell Scored Knockdown


For release Thursday, October 12, 2006



John DeStefano was more articulate and confident than Governor Rell in their first debate. DeStefano, the Democratic nominee and mayor of New Haven, reminded Connecticut of Rell's long association with her disgraced predecessor, as well as her chief of staff's improper politicking. The mayor showed his familiarity with public policy by listing problem after problem, which, of course, was not quite to explain their solutions. He was full of promises.

Rell, the Republican nominee, was reserved and stiff. She made an embarrassing show of evading a question about who should be elected U.S. senator even as she easily might have accomplished her purpose by replying candidly that she was not going to express a preference. (DeStefano enjoyed mocking her evasion.) Rell made no attempt to inspire; she was as plain as could be.

But the governor won the debate because with one quick and telling rejoinder she showed that DeStefano's seeming mastery of the issues is built on a misapprehension.

It happened as DeStefano was declaring again that the biggest thing wrong in Connecticut is the property tax and that state government should raise to 50 percent its share of the cost of municipal education.

Whereupon Rell noted that state government already covers 80 percent of educational costs in DeStefano's own city.

That is, nothing is ever enough, and maybe property taxes are not really the big problem.

To one of DeStefano's many complaints that state government should spend more on all sorts of things, Rell replied simply but devastatingly, "We do what we can afford."

In his commercials DeStefano says he has "big ideas." In the first debate he made clear that these ideas involve a lot more taxing and spending and that he is sure a few people can be found to pay for what everyone else gets. This would be accomplished through more progressive taxation, more shifting of municipal expenses to state government and more shifting of state taxes to the wealthy.

There might be some justice in that but just a few days before the debate DeStefano had shown that he couldn't make it add up even for the centerpiece of his campaign, a proposal for property tax relief.

The mayor estimated that his plan would cost $450 million. He said he would finance it by increasing income taxes on people earning more than $549,000 and by increasing the state conveyance tax on real estate sales. But, DeStefano acknowledged, those new taxes would raise only $330 million, so he would come up with the remaining $120 million through savings in the state budget that he could not yet specify.

Thus even in the hands of the master of policy the vaunted "millionaire's tax," long the Democrats' answer to every unsatisfied craving, fell pathetically short.

Not that the governor had a good comeback with her own property tax relief plan, her proposal to eliminate the tax on cars -- as if municipalities would not recover the lost car tax revenue through higher taxes on other property or through more state aid to towns drawn from state taxes. Like DeStefano's property tax proposal, Rell's is just tax shifting, not tax relief.

"The problem isn't the auto tax," DeStefano insisted. "The problem is the property tax."

And yet after 30 years of ever-increasing state appropriations in the name of property tax relief, people may start to suspect that the problem is actually uncontrollable spending, especially at the municipal level, where Connecticut's system of binding arbitration for public employee union contracts removes most public expense from the ordinary democratic process. Indeed, the Democratic campaign for more progressivity in taxation has been aimed less at achieving social justice than at concealing and confusing the burgeoning costs of the party's biggest constituency, government employees.

Like so many leading Democrats, DeStefano thinks that nearly everything could be fixed by the right tax and reimbursement formulas. But no one still in office can remember a time when Connecticut was not rewriting those formulas and appropriating more under them in the name of reversing the societal disintegration that has only gotten worse nevertheless.

Even Rell succumbed to this bureaucratic approach the other day as she created a state agency to discourage "suburban sprawl," the hobgoblin conjured by those who cannot bear to examine how public policy supposed to elevate the poor has only ruined them and made whole cities uninhabitable. Just days before the governor's "sprawl" announcement two men walking past the state Capitol in Hartford were assaulted, one stabbed, by a gang of punks without any notice being taken by those who labor cluelessly under the golden dome. Soon people who want to escape such predation may have to apply to the Office of Responsible Growth.


Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.


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