Balancing the state budget is not a game

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Have you ever played Jenga, the game where you try to preserve a structure built out of wooden blocks while at the same time you remove pieces one at a time?

If so, you know that there is a limit to how many building blocks you can remove before the whole tower comes tumbling down. Jenga offers an analogy for today’s ongoing efforts to remove pieces from the state budget without crippling state government or the people it serves.  The big difference is that the state budget is no game, and what topples are not wooden blocks, but people’s lives.

Experienced Jenga players know that the key to success is balance. You cannot remove blocks from the same section of the tower too many times; instead, you need to consider the cumulative impact of individual moves. The same is true for the state budget: changes need to be considered in light of their cumulative impact.

Yet in many of the budget proposals under consideration, legislators are considering reducing funding for a number of programs that would all target the same group of low-income residents, over and over again. Just as in Jenga, if the state of Connecticut pulls away too many of the building blocks of productive lives, individuals, towns and cities, and the broader economy will suffer.

As part of budget negotiations, legislators need to embrace a more balanced approach: one that not only balances expense side cuts with revenue increases but also balances who bears the burden of these service cuts and revenue increases. Such an approach would necessarily consider the long-term ramifications of any change. Many services—such as high-quality public education, early child care, and preventative health services— provide the foundations for both solid child development and steady economic growth. By enabling parents to work, creating jobs within the state, and promoting the social and cognitive growth of children, investments in early child care can generate over $7 in economic activity for every $1 spent. These services are like the load-bearing walls in any building: vital to the structure’s integrity.

Moreover, legislators should consider the importance of transparency and accountability. If cuts are to be made, we need to know the longer term impact. Where legislators do choose to make service cuts, they should also require data collection and reporting regarding the outcomes and economic costs to the populations impacted by these cuts. This information will help guide future budget decisions so that cutting services will be less likely to topple families’ wellbeing or Connecticut’s long-term economic health.

A sustainable budget cannot rely on cuts alone. Just as pulling blocks out of a Jenga tower without strategy will weaken the structure, so too will placing blocks on top without strategy. The governor and the legislature should consider revenue structures that both help close the budget gap and ensure that Connecticut does not face a decades-long cycle of massive budget holes and haphazard solutions to fill these holes.

Proposals put forth to “increase revenue without raising taxes” include decreasing or eliminating the Earned Income Tax Credit that helps boost the paychecks of working families struggling to get by on low wages and eliminating property tax support for homeowners paying high taxes. These proposals actually remove money from the pockets of low and middle-class families: the very same families impacted by the services cuts discussed. This creates a situation in which thousands of families could lose access to affordable child care, health insurance and housing.

We urge legislators to discuss more sustainable approaches to generating revenue.

Currently, Connecticut taxes most products and some services. However, over the past 40 years, household spending on products has decreased while spending on services has increased. This is especially true for higher-income individuals.  Broadening the sales tax base to include more services such as interior decorators and tennis lessons can more equitably generate revenue without placing greater burden on low-income individuals.

Moving ahead, the legislature and the governor will continue to discuss a tough situation to which there is no “good” solution. The $5 billion dollar budget gap threatening to topple Connecticut’s economy is the result of both historically unfunded liabilities and a changing population. Although solving these problems is daunting, children cannot wait another legislative cycle for lawmakers to figure out how to reduce budget deficits and improve the economy.

To build strong futures, children need quality education, quality health care, and strong families now. By balancing budget cuts with strategically generating revenue and by balancing which citizens in Connecticut bear the burden of service cuts and revenue changes, Connecticut can move toward a better solution and more solid economic future.

Lauren Ruth, Ph.D., is the Youth Policy Fellow and Ellen Shemitz, J.D., is Executive Director of Connecticut Voices for Children.

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