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What’s the Matter With Connecticut?

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What’s the Matter With Connecticut?

The Wall Street Journal November 24, 2018
Public SectorReinventing Government

The state’s affluent suburbanites punish themselves in an effort to punish Donald Trump.

Since the era of “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” Connecticut has played an outsize role in defining the American suburb. High-quality, low-density living remains one of the state’s chief draws and suburban voters are one of its most important constituencies. Across the country, suburban voters fed up with President Trump broke heavily for the Democrats in the midterms. That happened in Connecticut, too, but it wasn’t a “change” election in the Nutmeg State. Rather, it was a “more of the same” election. Democrats retained control of the governorship and strengthened their position in the state Legislature

Republicans suffered one of their most demoralizing losses in the 26th state Senate district, in suburban Fairfield County. Twenty-two-year-old Democrat Will Haskell defeated the incumbent Republican, 68-year-old Toni Boucher. Ms. Boucher has served in state office for about as long as Mr. Haskell has been alive. The district, which had been sending Republicans to Hartford since the 1970s, includes several “Gold Coast” communities, all or in part, such as Weston, New Canaan and Westport.

Mr. Haskell’s campaign was buoyed by an adulatory profile in the New York Times and an endorsement by President Obama. Though he had been considering law school after graduating Georgetown University in May, Mr. Haskell instead set his sights on state office, inspired, he says, by a desire to “get involved in the fight against Trump’s agenda.” Ms. Boucher was assumed to be safe because of her many years of constituent service and embrace of the classic local brand of Republicanism—social moderation and fiscal conservatism.

That brand proved no match for the “D” before Mr. Haskell’s name. Hillary Clinton won the district by more than 20 points in 2016. Ms. Boucher wasn’t alone: seven other Fairfield County Republicans were turned out of the Legislature this year. Eighteen remain, and Connecticut Democrats can barely contain their enthusiasm for 2020, when President Trump himself will grace the top of the ticket.

It’s too early to predict how President Trump will modify his agenda now that Sen.-elect Will Haskell is on the scene. But his victory reveals something significant about how Connecticut plans to address its leading challenges, which presently revolve around the hole in its budget and the sucking sound its economy makes. The Kavanaugh confirmation and the immigrant caravan are secondary concerns, to put it mildly.

Connecticut has big problems. Its lawmakers face a $4 billion budget shortfall over the next two fiscal years; the sum for the prior two-year cycle was $5 billion. Chronic deficits come as a result of economic stagnation and escalating costs. Throughout the recent economic recovery, an era during which the economies of neighboring New York and Massachusetts grew 9% and 14%, respectively, Connecticut’s economy actually shrank by 3%. The state’s public pensions boast one of the lowest-funded ratios in the country. A recent analysis by Fitch Ratings found that Connecticut trailed only Illinois in how much state debt and liabilities burden residents’ personal income.

Connecticut’s major cities remain plagued by entrenched poverty, high taxes and onerous legacy costs. It’ll be a long time before Boston and Brooklyn need to worry about Waterbury, Hartford and Bridgeport luring away ambitious entrepreneurs and artsy strivers.

However, it’s a time-honored tradition among young professionals in New York City to get married and move to a suburb, preferably one with charming housing stock and strong public schools. This is Connecticut’s advantage. As many mistakes as the state has made over the last 30 years—including the introduction of an income tax in 1991—American Community Survey data show that the median property-tax bill in Fairfield County remains a few thousand dollars below what residents pay in nearby Westchester County, N.Y., Long Island and parts of New Jersey.

But Connecticut’s advantage over its neighbors has been narrowing, thanks in part to three significant income-tax hikes since the 2007-09 recession, two of which came courtesy of the incumbent governor, Democrat Dannel Malloy. Mr. Malloy’s inability to stabilize the budget, despite claiming to have done so during his 2014 re-election campaign, drove his poll numbers into the dust. He leaves office one of the least-liked governors in the country.

Voters chose Democrat Ned Lamont to succeed Mr. Malloy. Best known for his primary defeat of Sen. Joe Lieberman in 2006 (Mr. Lieberman ran as an Independent and won in the general election), Mr. Lamont has called for “structural” fiscal reforms and pledged not to raise income taxes.

How he will tackle the deficit without leaning on taxpayers or wrenching concessions from the state’s powerful public unions is a mystery. Organized labor remains an essential part of the Democratic coalition in Connecticut. Mr. Lamont denounced June’s Janus v. Afscme ruling—a serious blow to the unions—as soon as the Supreme Court handed it down. At a government-union rally the weekend before the election, he assured the crowd, “We’re going to be fighting for you.”

Connecticut will need its suburbs in the coming years, and suburban voters have a lot to lose from continued fiscal instability. Higher taxes at some point may become unavoidable, but what kind of deal can taxpayers expect state Democrats to strike on their behalf? Fairfield County suburbanites may want to distance themselves from the Trump-led Republican party. But their unwillingness or inability to differentiate between national and state issues risks keeping Connecticut away from the fiscal course correction it so desperately needs.

This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal

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Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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