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Is This Any Way To Write A Budget?


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IS THIS ANY WAY TO WRITE A BUDGET?

As Hurricane Bob roared outside, legislators in the Connecticut State Capitol worked furiously to end a storm of their own making: a budget crisis that dragged on for almost eight weeks. At long last,on Aug. 21, the Democrat-controlledSenate and House were set to giveIndependent Governor Lowell P. Weicker Jr. the personal income tax he demanded.

Weicker's victory didn't come cheap. The reputation of nearly every politician in the state has suffered, and Connecticut has become an object lesson in how not to craft a budget. Throughout the standoff, Weicker didn't give an inch. He vetoed three budgets that expanded the sales tax base without touching incomes. He did so even though the second of his vetoes triggered temporary furloughs of some 20,000 state workers and shut down state parks at the peak of tourist season.

SUMMER VACATION. The deal the governor finally O. K.'d will impose a personal income tax of 4.5% and a reduction in the sales tax from 8% to 6%. It should go a long way toward plugging Connecticut's $937 million revenue gap. The $7.9 billion budget will include spending reforms and a constitutional spending cap. The sales tax cut, coupled with a reduction in the 13.8% corporate income tax rate, the nation's highest, should give Connecticut's economy a much-needed boost. The new tax regime "could begin to reverse Connecticut's downward spiral," says business lobbyist Kenneth Decko.

But those benefits are still on the horizon, while the political problems are here and now. To the dismay of voters of all stripes, many lawmakers went on vacation at the height of the battle. "It's absolutely ridiculous," says retired engineer William F. Middlemass of Newington. "With the state in the mess it's in, they had no right to take a vacation." Even those who didn't take time off say that angry voters have accosted them at grocery stores, banks, and church services. Says Democratic Senator Kevin B. Sullivan: "It's the most dispiriting, frustrating time I've had in 20 years in politics."

Weicker's lack of party affiliation made a budget deal more difficult than it might have been. Republicans were out to punish the governor for running as an independent and depriving the GOP of a chance to put another statehouse in their column. Says one Republican representative: "People hate him to such an extent they won't vote for anything Weicker wants."

The governor also had to contend with politicians' innate reluctance to levy an easy-to-spot tax where none was before. Legislators came up with myriad alternatives, including, improbably, a proposal to tax mortgages and commercial leases. "That's insane," says Democratic Senator George C. Jepsen. In his Fairfield County district, office vacancies average 25%.

As it became clear that Weicker was going to hold fast until he got his income tax, the rhetoric hit new highs--or lows. Representative Richard Foley Jr., denouncing Weicker's second veto, said, "If arrogance were tax revenue we'd have a surplus."

The hot air and hard feelings will end up costing Connecticut's taxpayers plenty. During the crisis, the state paid $100,000 a day in interest on short-term debt it incurred every time it passed a stopgap funding measure. The political costs are harder to measure, but the legislators who worked during a hurricane to end the fiscal crisis may find that the storm did less damage to the state than the impasse did to their careers.Lisa Driscoll in Hartford


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