Who's to Blame for State Budget Fiascos?

By , Maura Casey is associate editorial page editor of The Day of New London, Conn.

TXUNTIL recently, I thought the state in which I live, Connecticut, was run by grown-ups. That was before the regular session of the legislature ended and the state began the month of July without a budget for the first time in this century. Tension, dissension, and apprehension ensued. State workers went on unpaid leave. The local Salvation Army was swamped with telephone calls from indigent residents fearing that their welfare benefits would be cut off. The governor blustered. Campers protested plans to close state parks over the Fourth of July weekend. The legislature began to act like Romper Room. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, said that the state government actually made Congress look good, something he didn't think was possible. Connecticut has plenty of company. It isn't the only state that has gone into special session to try and wring a budget out of its legislators. Illinois, New York, Maine, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and California all limped into the new fiscal year without budgets. Why? Well, the recession for one thing, which has caused revenues to drop. Lowered federal aid to cities is being felt, too: In 1980, the federal government provided 16 percent of the average municipal budget; now that is down to 6 percent. And one other reason: For the last 10 years, most states have been spending as if the cash in the treasury was Monopoly money instead of being the real thing. Nationwide, state spending during the 1980s increased 8.3 percent a year, according to the Wall Street Journal. Connecticut's budget jumped 50 percent during the last five years alone. Considering that Ronald Reagan made a cause cbre out of running against Washington and getting government off people's backs, it is strange that the growth of state governments has gone largely unnoticed. During the 1980s, the number of state employees nationwide increased to 3 million, rivaling the number of workers employed by the federal government. Most state workers are union members. Collective bargaining increases costs. State wages in Connecticut, with its patchwork quilt of more than 20 unions among state workers, is out of control. Here is one small example. The state department that regulates the lottery, jai alai, and dog racing - the Division of Special Revenue - has about 400 employees. A segment of those employees are cashiers who work a 37-hour work week at off-track betting parlors. Except they are not paid like cashiers. According to state gaming commissioner Demetrious Louziotis, salaries for cashiers range from $10.37 to $12.43 an hour. The state also provides benefits, which cost taxpayers an additional 43 percent of the hourly wage. So when the cost of those benefits is included, the true pay scale is $14.83 to $17.77 an hour. For a cashier! This kind of insanity is an old story to state taxpayers, and they are furious that the state government is now considering imposing a state income tax, something it has thus far managed to avoid. Residents' rage is one reason the legislature is immobilized. Taxpayers are right to be angry, but they should also blame themselves. They didn't demand that government spend money wisely during the high-rolling 1980s, when money wasn't such a worry. Many didn't choose to participate in the most basic function of being an American citizen - casting a ballot. If the state budget mess has taught taxpayers anything, it is that they can't take their eyes off lawmakers for a minute. That isn't cause for cynicism. If voters had argued more during the 1980s, instead of being so passive, most state governments would be in better shape. In the case of my state, I can only hope that legislators stop acting like such gutless wonders and pass an income tax to end the snafu. At the same time, perhaps the steaming self-righteousness of the populace will level off into something more constructive, such as greater involvement in government. Citizens aren't supposed to act like sheep in a democracy. Maybe voters have figured that out.

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