It is time to consider specifics when discussing regionalism and the Connecticut economy.
Our state, and the Hartford region in particular, is in an especially unhappy mood. Residents expect government services, but feel they are often of poor quality. Taxpayers feel stretched financially, but there is always a concern government may ask for more. As a state, we have lagged socially, culturally, and economically for a generation. We are among the slowest growing regions in the country according to a recent report from MetroHartford Progress Points. The only way to break the cycle is to grow our economy by creating jobs.
When it comes to reducing the cost of government, decreasing the size of the government workforce is the only cost cutting measure that makes a difference. This is true whether services are delivered at the municipal level or on a regional basis. If every school, police and fire station and public works department remains open – the cost is the same whether services are administered locally or regionally. Technology can shrink back office government operations, but the public interface between taxpayer and government employees will remain essentially the same if we continue to require the same level of services.
This brings me to my main point: The solution to our fiscal challenges will not come from cutting expenditures, it will only come from growing our economy. So that’s where our focus needs to be. How?
We need to value all jobs, not just high-paying jobs which require advanced training. Service and seasonal jobs are just as important to making a region a desired place to live as the higher wage jobs that support them.
Our schools need to nurture a culture that encourages students to dream, innovate and take risk. That spirit of innovation is the Connecticut virtue that built the economy we are trying to recapture.
The culture of Connecticut says local government represents us best. Town hall should be the public face for government service, with state or regional systems serving as support. The Nutmeg Network provides internet capabilities that allow technology to carry out many routine tasks. Property revaluations, collection processing and anything that can be done on a scale of 1 million people can be done more efficiently at the regional level. Transportation systems could be made seamless. Public health could be administered locally, but managed regionally.
State government can do its part. Regulatory reform should be a never ending process. Standards should be uniform so every agency of state government applies them in the same manner. This would make it easier to run or start a business in Connecticut. One office of government, be it the Secretary of the State or the Regional Councils of Government, should be the single point of contact for all questions regarding business regulation.
Similarly, taxation should be uniform. We can begin by eliminating exemptions and applying a low sales tax rate to most transactions. The rate will be lower, but the number of transactions subject to taxation would increase. To lure more corporate headquarters to Connecticut we should eliminate corporate taxes which make up a small part of the overall state tax base. Such a policy change would eliminate the need to compete with other states over incentive packages.
Regionalism is important and it can help, but it is not the answer to the economic challenges of the Hartford region or the state. The big answer truly rests with our commitment to re-shape government in a manner that stimulates economic growth.
Chip Beckett is the Chairman of the Glastonbury Town Council.