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The wrong study asks the wrong questions

Answers are determined by questions, and with great flourish the General Assembly has appointed a special committee of 15 worthy citizens to ask the wrong questions. That is, the committee is to study Connecticut’s tax structure — “to develop revenue-neutral policy options to modernize the current tax system, with the goals of increasing the system’s simplicity, fairness, economic competitiveness, and affordability.”

But no tax options are “revenue-neutral”; they are just taxes, which can be dialed up as necessary in the name of “simplicity,” “fairness,” “competitiveness,” “affordability,” or anything else. In Connecticut’s history “modernizing” taxes means only increasing them, insofar as taxes go only up over time, just as “modernizing” means only more government, which is not necessarily more effective government.

Evaluating taxes is a basic function of democratic politics, something ordinarily to be done directly by legislators after public hearings and deliberation. But no member of the committee to study the tax structure is a legislator, and only one member is an elected official, a mayor. Thus the legislature seems to be looking to lend the respectability of outsiders to its natural inclination — to escape restraint on state government spending.

Restraining spending programmatically has been attempted in Connecticut only once in recent decades and only nominally, in connection with enactment of the state income tax in 1991. The following year the voters were presented with a state constitutional amendment purporting to tie state spending growth to personal income growth. But the amendment contained big exceptions, and the legislature never enacted all the definitions required for the amendment’s enforcement. So the amendment had little effect, and 20 years later Connecticut got a state tax increase even bigger than that of the income tax.

The income tax was supposed to be more efficient and reliable than the sales and corporation taxes, but it couldn’t keep up with state spending either. Three years ago when taxes were raised by another record degree, nobody cared about efficiency anymore; it was just a matter of getting money any way possible.

So a study of the tax structure probably won’t produce more than a scheme to hide more of the tax burden, to stick more of it to fewer people or to people who can’t figure it out, as with the taxes hidden in energy, insurance, and liquor prices and wrongly blamed on the companies that collect them for the state.

What Connecticut needs instead is a study of state spending. 

For example, while state spending on education has exploded since the state Supreme Court’s decision in the school funding equalization case of Horton vs. Meskill in 1977, half the state’s high school seniors fail English and two-thirds fail math, and two-thirds of the freshmen in the state university and community college systems need to make up high school English or math or both. But no one in authority asks why.

While alleviating poverty is the objective of several expensive state agencies, poverty in Connecticut is worse than ever, with a study this month concluding that more than a third of the population is living paycheck to paycheck or more desperately. But no one in authority asks why.

While child protection is the objective of another expensive state agency, the agency has remained in federal court receivership for 23 years despite increasing appropriations, and as many as 40 percent of children in the state as a whole and 80 percent in the cities are born into homes without fathers and thus hustled toward poverty. But no one in authority asks why.

Indeed, from education to poverty to child welfare, why is ever more of state government’s work simply remedial? Is it remediating the consequences of state government’s own mistaken policies?

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