With elections for all 187 Connecticut General Assembly seats—36 in the Senate and 151 in the House—less than two months away, it’s not too early to begin thinking about the qualifications and policy positions of the 2016 election candidates in your districts.
The state’s poor fiscal condition, declining tax revenue (despite huge tax increases last year and in 2011), and slow economic recovery make the votes cast on Nov. 8 critical to the state’s economic future.
“Considering the challenges facing our state and the economy, this is set up to be a watershed election,” says CBIA President and CEO Joe Brennan.
“We need change at the Capitol, because business as usual clearly is not working.”
For evidence, one need look no further than last May, when the legislature needed a special session to erase a $1 billion deficit from the FY 2017 budget, which took effect July 1.
To the governor’s and many lawmakers’ credit, that package was adopted without tax increases, and most of the $850 million in budget cuts that were made are recurring as long as the funding cut from this year’s budget is not reinstated down the road.
The package increased spending over the FY 2016 budget by only 0.4 %, a refreshing change from the state’s skyrocketing spending over the last decade and a half.
Even with the cuts, however, Connecticut faces deficits of $1.3 billion and $1.4 billion in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 respectively—that according to the state’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis.
And few believe that the current budget will remain in balance very long.
“We need everybody to focus on getting people elected who are committed to fiscal discipline, a stronger business climate, and economic growth,” says Brennan.
“The fact that this is an election year helped keep some legislators from trying to push through tax increases to close the deficit, but 2017 is not an election year, and that’s when lawmakers will be drawing up the new biennial budget for 2018 and 2019.”
The 2017 General Assembly session begins Jan. 4 and ends June 7.
Brennan points out that many interest groups were upset over this year’s deep budget cuts and state employee layoffs, and they’ll be out in force actively campaigning for candidates who would attempt to restore funding for certain programs with tax increases.
Tax increases next year will do as much economic damage to the state as they would have done this year.
“So those who believe that Connecticut can reach its economic potential through fiscal reforms and a more competitive business climate will need to be just as active, because tax increases and more employer mandates next year will do as much economic damage to the state as they would have this year.”
What’s on Voters’ Minds?
If a June 8 Quinnipiac University poll is any indication, jobs, the economy, taxes, and government spending are what voters are thinking about as we move toward Election Day.
The poll found 72% of voters—an all-time high— are dissatisfied with the direction of the state, and 65% —another all-time high—disapprove of the way the state legislature is handling its job.
Disapproval of the state legislature’s performance has risen dramatically since last year, when the General Assembly approved the second-largest tax increase in state history, which sparked tense debate over fiscal issues during this year’s legislative session.
According to the Quinnipiac poll, more than a third of voters said the economy and jobs were the most important problem facing the state.
Another 20% said government spending and the state budget were the state’s biggest issues, while 17% chose taxes. All other issues registered in the low single digits.
Eighty percent of poll respondents described the state’s economy as “not so good” or “poor,” with 53% saying economic conditions were worsening.
Almost three-quarters of voters said jobs were difficult to find, with that number skewing higher among those aged 18–34 and 50–64.
Asked whether they were better off now than a year ago, just 29% of respondents said yes, while 45% said they are worse off.
Eighty percent of independent voters—Connecticut’s largest voting bloc—were unhappy with the state’s direction, compared with 88% of registered Republicans and 53% of Democrats.
“The message coming from Connecticut voters could not be clearer,” says Brennan.
“Improving our economy and the state’s fiscal condition have to be our elected officials’ top priorities.
“The reality is that you can’t have one without the other. You need business confidence to grow the economy, and you can’t have that without fiscal predictability and stability.
The only way to solve our problems is through fiscal discipline, not more tax increases.
Otherwise, says Brennan—alluding to the results of a recent McKinsey report released by the state’s Commission on Economic Competitiveness—wealth, young people, and educated residents will continue leaving the state.
Will Poll Responses Translate Into Votes?
Whether voters actually elect candidates who embrace the priorities expressed in the Q-Poll remains to be seen.
“Voters often express dissatisfaction with the state legislature and where Connecticut is heading, but then we often see the same people elected year after year,” Brennan notes.
This year, we’re guaranteed to see new faces in the legislature from 23 districts—21 House and two Senate—where incumbents are not running. Two long-serving Democrat House members also lost primary races in August.
Brennan emphasizes that CBIA’s efforts around the election are nonpartisan.
“Our desire is to elect people, regardless of party affiliation, who are committed to making the state more economically competitive and stabilizing the state’s fiscal situation without resorting to tax increases,” Brennan said.
He urges voters to insist that General Assembly candidates explain their plans to achieve those goals, and support only those who commit to making Connecticut’s economic improvement their top priority.
“Then, after the election, voters must hold legislators accountable for their actions, remind them of campaign promises to turn the state around, and stay engaged in the legislative process,” he added.
To underscore the importance of the upcoming General Assembly elections, CBIA launched the Fix Connecticut campaign early last month.
Reflecting widespread voter frustration with the state legislature’s performance—and CBIA’s commitment to putting new resources and a greater sense of urgency into its election year activities—Fix Connecticut is a public awareness campaign targeting issues impacting the state’s struggling economy and job growth.
It includes digital and social media advertising along with integrated direct mail and grassroots advocacy activities.
“In every election cycle, we endorse candidates, advertise, communicate with our members and their employees, plan candidate tours of member companies, and engage in a variety of grassroots efforts,” says Brennan.
“This year, however, we’ll be engaging in additional activities in certain key General Assembly races to more directly influence their outcome.”
The Fix Connecticut campaign focuses on issues such as taxes, government mandates, and attracting and retaining great talent—while highlighting legislative candidates from all political parties who are committed to fixing the economy and creating jobs.
“We have a critical cause, and we’re asking all voters to join the fight and channel their frustration into positive action that will turn things around,” he said.
Bad Policy Choices
He argues change is needed in the state legislature to reverse policy choices that have made the Connecticut less competitive and hurt our economy.
“We have tremendous assets in Connecticut and terrific potential,” he says, “but bad policy choices over the years are limiting and diminishing those strengths.
Voters must elect candidates—regardless of their political affiliation—who are serious about resolving our fiscal issues.
“If we want our economy to grow, if we want to keep and bring good, well-paying jobs here, we have to make different choices.
“Voters must elect candidates—regardless of their political affiliation—who are serious about resolving our fiscal issues, improving our business climate, and making Connecticut a top state for economic growth and job creation.”
Talk to Your Employees
In the weeks ahead, the presidential election and Connecticut’s Congressional races will grab the lion’s share of media attention. (All five of the state’s House seats are up for election, as well as Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s Senate seat.)
The reality, however, is that when it comes to the impact on Connecticut residents’ lives and the state’s economic competitiveness, what happens in the General Assembly is just as important, possibly more so.
“This year more than ever, state elections matter,” says Brennan.
That’s why CBIA urges business owners to talk to their employees about public policy issues that affect their companies and jobs—and where candidates for the state legislature stand on those issues.
“We’re not suggesting that employers tell their employees how to vote but that they inform them about what kinds of policy decisions can help their companies thrive and keep jobs in Connecticut, and which ones would have the opposite effect,” says Brennan.