Hartford Courant Editorial - Agenda 2006: The State



To prepare for 2006, let's consider the big success story of 2005 in Connecticut – the rescue of the Naval Submarine Base in Groton.

Soon after the Pentagon recommended that the base be closed, state and local officials of all political stripes joined forces to save it. Team Connecticut fought, and won, because the team dwelled on the positives. Members narrated a compelling story to a presidential commission that reviewed the Defense Department's conclusions.

The base was saved on its own merits, which is exactly how we should view Connecticut's challenges in the next 12 months – starting with the challenge of saving the jobs at Electric Boat that are scheduled to be eliminated. The spirit of Team Connecticut must permeate our state as people continue to face the tough challenges inherent in a dynamic society. To rest on our laurels as the highest per capita income state would be risky. Other states can easily surpass us.

The primary mission in 2006 is job creation and improving the state's business climate. A Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. report last year said Connecticut was at the bottom in job creation; a study by the Connecticut Economic Resource Center concluded that Connecticut is losing its competitive edge. This won't do. If we stagnate, our quality of life will diminish.

We must build on our pluses, which include a skilled and educated population and a pioneering spirit manifested by the number of U.S. patents conceived in Connecticut. There should be a focused, united business recruitment campaign with eye-catching incentives. If other states can do it, why can't we?

To grow economically, we must take bolder steps to improve the state's outmoded transportation system. State officials should invest the major portion of federal transportation money on modes of transit other than highways – such as commuter rail service between New Haven and Springfield and making existing bus and train travel convenient, comfortable and cheap.

Further, more starter homes for younger workers must be provided. Connecticut has too little affordable housing to accommodate healthy economic growth.

Finally, Connecticut must lower the cost of doing business. And lawmakers must resist the ever-present temptation to impose costlier benefit programs, needless regulations and higher taxes on the companies – small and large – that provide jobs.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell must take the lead in developing policies that curtail the sprawling development that is inexorably changing the historic Connecticut countryside. The state's heritage is in jeopardy. Connecticut's population is growing only marginally, but the development of rural areas continues at an alarming rate. As property taxes continue to increase, urban areas are being abandoned. The trend is toward further demographic isolation, which hurts racial and class harmony.

The persistent spread of low-density development in once-rural towns is adding to the cost of government services, causing more air and water pollution, eliminating farms and forests and – because commuting to work and for errands is essential – increasing energy use. Government policies encourage this kind of development.

Mrs. Rell and lawmakers must change the incentives to attract new development to areas that are already built, such as town centers, industrial parks and transit corridors.

As a first step, the governor should commission a build-out study showing what the state will look like in 10 or 20 years if current development patterns don't change. It won't be pretty, but it might encourage action. Further, candidates for governor this year should describe for voters what they think Connecticut should look like in the years to come.

Late last year, the governor and lawmakers finally took meaningful steps to diminish the impact of special interest money on elections. But it wasn't a perfect fix. The new campaign finance reform law must be amended in the coming session to allow unaffiliated and third-party candidates the same access to public campaign funds as Democrats and Republicans have. The loophole allowing party organizations to pump unlimited funds into legislative races must be closed, and the campaign slush funds run by legislative leaders must be eliminated. And final action should be taken on a new law to clean up state contracting procedures.

Another big contributor to economic stagnation is a second-rate education system. We do very well in preparing our children in most suburbs, but have yet to succeed in raising achievement levels in city schools experiencing the most student population growth.

The funding formula must be revamped to benefit schools where the needs are greatest. Money alone won't solve deeply rooted problems, but without sufficient finances there is little hope for progress.

Economic health also requires a first-class system of higher education. Connecticut's public colleges and universities are no longer stepchildren of the state. They are well on their way to becoming among the top public institutions in the nation. The state must ensure continued adequate funding of higher-education operational budgets as well as capital projects.

The General Assembly should get serious about tax reform. Over-reliance on the property tax is a job killer, a home wrecker and a destroyer of sensible growth. Connecticut property owners pay more taxes on the real estate they own than residents of virtually all other states.

The load, which gets heavier every year, has an impact on jobs because many businesses can find considerably less expensive sites on which to build. They also have better opportunities to recruit when workers can afford to buy or rent.

The goal of reform should be not to find more money to expand the state budget, but to distribute the tax burden more fairly. Property tax reform comes in many shapes and sizes, such as a statewide or regional property tax; a freeze or cut of the local levy and more state aid instead; a requirement that the state pay for all new local mandates; and paying the state's full share in lieu of taxes for local properties it owns.

A lot is riding on getting the local tax system in order, not the least being sensible growth in urban areas and the preservation of rural and semi-rural areas. Connecticut is already divided by extreme wealth and poverty. One of the wealthiest states anywhere in the world is also home to some of the poorest cities. This wastes human resources, damages our image and hurts our economy. Tax reform ultimately touches on those issues.

This should be the year that the legislature steps in at long last to settle the differences between two important public entities: the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, the state's solid-waste disposal agency, and the Metropolitan District Commission, which provides water, sewer and other services in Greater Hartford.

The immediate problem is CRRA's effort to replace the MDC as operator of CRRA's huge trash-to-energy plant, breaking a multiyear contract. The agencies are stupidly involved in litigation that is costing ratepayers millions of dollars.

The legislature, which created both agencies, should intervene and impose a solution that is best for those who pay the bills. Hearings should also be held on the future of CRRA and the MDC and whether some sort of merger or the creation of a super-agency would be practical.

Other items:

Traffic at Bradley International Airport grew last year, but Connecticut's air hub remains second-tier. It's time that the state gets serious about giving meaning to the word "international" so that Bradley offers regular passenger service to Europe and Latin America.

Improvements to the airport are welcome, but the overall condition of the facility is not as good as it can be. Services are limited, and restrooms and luggage-handling facilities don't match airports of similar size. Ground transportation must be improved. Remember, for many, this is the gateway to Connecticut.

The state must do a better job of preparing the thousands of inmates who finish serving sentences for work and finding them jobs. Pushing people out the prison gates without adequate skills guarantees that many will come back through the revolving door.

The national economy has improved, but Connecticut's economy is lagging. The job losses have been too many and the gains too few. It's unhealthy to depend on the expansion of gambling for the bulk of job growth and fail to entice the builders of the 21st-century economy, namely biotech and pharmaceutical operations, human genome entrepreneurs and investment bankers.

Are we up to the job of reinventing Connecticut as a model of economic vitality and demographic harmony? Team Connecticut gave us an optimistic answer last year by refusing to give up on the submarine base. It convinced those with open minds that shutting the Groton facility ill served the national interest. Many thought that to be an impossible quest, but the team prevailed. Keep the team spirit alive in 2006.

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