In October of 1991, 40,000 furious citizens massed
in Hartford at the State Capitol, protesting Connecticut's new income tax,
cursing and spitting on Governor Lowell Weicker, and threatening legislators
with political extinction. One month later, Democrats in New Jersey were routed
by an irate electorate in retribution for the passage of changes in the state's
tax structure coupled with increased aid to education. Republicans took control
of both houses of the New Jersey legislature by veto-proof margins.
Both events reflected the crippling dilemma faced by progressives and Democrats
in recent years: increased revenues and fair tax structures are necessary to
improve the lives of people and communities and to demonstrate that government
can deliver; and yet to touch the issue of taxes (other than to urge relief for
the middle class) is political suicide. In state after state, severe cutbacks,
scapegoating of state employees, shortchanging of cities and towns, and the
general stifling of any new programmatic thinking have all been the result of
the inability of our political culture to deal with the question of taxes.
But the last two years in Connecticut have shown that it is possible to enact
progressive tax reform, avoid shortsighted cutbacks--and win politically. After
months of fierce struggle, in 1991 the Connecticut General Assembly adopted a
sweeping progressive tax reform the first state to do so in fifteen years. And,
this past November, the Democrats retained legislative control of both houses
without losing any ground; fifty-two of fifty-eight legislators who supported
the new personal income tax and ran again were re-elected, overwhelmingly
ratifying tax reform.
Clinton's coattails contributed to Connecticut's stunning refutation of
taxes-equal-suicide equation. But there were other important drivers--the
severity of the state's fiscal crisis, a self-confident, independent governor,
and especially, fifteen years of determined and effective organizing by
CONNECTICUT TAXES AND POLITICS
One of Connecticut's mottos is the Land of Steady Habits. For years the state
carried on as a fiscal throwback and as a lingering bastion of machine
Democratic politics. The Democratic Party in the postwar years was shaped, and
presided over, by the legendary John Bailey, who also served as Democratic
National Chair under John Kennedy. For decades Bailey dominated the state
legislature as well as the rest of state politics with an accommodating but
all-powerful hand. The required behavior was go-along and get-along. The
nominating procedures for candidates was (and remains) the most restrictive of
any state in the country, so intra-party challenges were few. Ideologically, the
Democratic Party's operating principle was to hew just far enough right of
center to render the Republican Party irrelevant. Republicans had long fumed
that the business community would not support Republican candidates, since they
never had any complaints about the Democrats.
The Republicans weren't the only ones who fumed. Liberals also felt shut out
and ignored and were kept from challenging through administrative roadblocks and
a well-tended machine. In 1970, for example, Joe Duffy, a liberal anti-war
candidate, won the Democratic primary for U. S. Senate in 1970. But Senator
Thomas Dodd, Chris Dodd's father, was unwilling to accept the defeat and ran as
an independent. He finished third, but siphoned enough votes to throw the
election to the Republican candidate, Lowell P. Weicker, Jr.
In 1971, in this conservative and limiting climate, a state income tax was
first passed. The state had a deficit and the General Assembly was deadlocked.
Well into a special session, and with little warning, no public hearing, and no
organizing, Senate leaders adopted an income tax plan in the wee hours of the
morning. It was deeply flawed as a result of its hasty passage. Leading
newspapers ran scathing editorials, and protests raged. Forty-six days after the
plan was passed, a special session voted to repeal the tax, and it disappeared
as quickly as it had come.
Many lessons might have been learned from the experience, but the lesson the
Democratic Party embraced was: "We don't do income taxes." For years,
this remained the party's fiscal credo. Ella Grasso, governor from 1974 to 1980,
and Bill O'Neill, governor from 1980 to 1990, set the standard for all others by
taking "the Pledge." They vowed, in each election campaign, to oppose
an income tax and to veto one if it reached their desk. This obviously had a
chilling effect on the Democratic discourse about taxes and left Connecticut
with one of the most regressive tax structures of any state. Connecticut was one
of only nine states (alone among major industrial states) without a broad-based
personal income tax. In return, the state had the highest sales tax in the
country in 1990, at 8 percent.
It also had the highest business profits tax in the country, at 13.8 percent,
very high property taxes, and a capital gains, dividend, and interest tax that
topped out at 14 percent. This structure, with its excessive reliance on sales
and property tax, was not just regressive. In addition, the high business taxes
hurt the state's competitiveness. And finally, a system based on corporate
profits and sales revenues is excessively "pro-cyclical," booming in
the good years and crumbling at the first sign of recession, making it
impossible to predict or plan long term. If you were a teacher and Connecticut's
tax structure were a class project, the students would all have been left back.
To their great credit, some Democrats fought for change. Irving Stolberg, who
would subsequently serve as Speaker of the House, was chairman of the Finance
Committee and worked tirelessly for tax reform. Bill Cibes, a liberal
representative from New London, led a hold-out in 1983 against the budget and
for an income tax. In addition, progressive unions, human service advocates, and
other liberal groups formed coalitions for tax reform over the years. They were
invariably stymied by the promise of a gubernatorial veto and the memory of the
1971 fiasco. And so the tax structure never changed.
One other major factor keeping the tax structure intact was the phenomenal
growth of the Connecticut economy in the mid-1980s. Fueled by the Reagan
administration's defense buildup and the real estate boom, employment grew
faster than the national average. Per capita income was the highest in the
country and growing at double-digit annual rates. In the boom years, from
1985-1988, the sales tax grew an average of 18% per year. Corporate tax revenues
jumped almost 20% annually during this period.
All this allowed spending to increase dramatically, especially for education,
senior citizens, health care, prison and road construction, and state
employment, without burdening (or reforming) the revenue stream. Those few who
warned that the end would come and the revenues would not match expenditures
were ignored, and the state barreled ahead.
THE RISE OF PROGRESSIVE POLITICS
In the meantime, a major change was brewing within the Democratic Party.
Connecticut had always had an activist tradition and a liberal wing of the
party. The Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG), founded in 1971 by
Connecticut native Ralph Nader, and originally headed by Toby Moffett, was one
of a number of thriving citizen action organizations that grew in the 1970s. By
the mid-1980s, it had a membership of 100,000. The Caucus of Connecticut
Democrats, founded in 1968 during the McCarthy campaign, kept the liberal flame
alive within the party. In addition, the Connecticut labor movement contained an
unusually large number of progressive unions with a large and active rank and
file, including the Connecticut State Federation of Teachers, District 1199, a
strong Machinists union, and a solid United Auto Workers Region 9A.
These forces came together electorally in 1980 in a coalition called the
Legislative Electoral Action Program (LEAP). Marc Caplan, the former director of
CCAG, founded the coalition with six groups initially and became its director.
LEAP hoped to unify the electoral activities of progressive organizations (and
in some cases prod them into electoral work), focus them in targeted races, and
offer high-quality technical assistance and large numbers of campaign volunteers
to promising progressive candidates. The key progressive union leaders, led by
John Flynn of the UAW, who became LEAP's president, felt enough frustration and
alienation from the Democratic Party that they put their considerable
credibility on the line with the fledgling group. (Today, twelve years later,
under the leadership of Rebecca Doty, LEAP has thirty member organizations and a
record of over 150 electoral victories, and four similar coalitions have been
established in other New England states.)
In its 1980 electoral debut, LEAP took on a few races, mainly in defense of
four key state senators targeted by the local version of NCPAC. All were
reelected. In 1982, Doreen Del Bianco of Waterbury, president of CCAG, won
office in the first concerted LEAP effort to recruit and elect an issue activist
to the legislature.
In 1984, in the Democratic primaries, Lynn Taborsak, the state coordinator of
NOW, and I ran simultaneously in primaries against ten-year incumbent
conservative Democratic leaders. With professionally run, grass-roots campaigns
that became the LEAP hallmark, both of us won upsets, signaling the arrival of a
feisty new wing of the Connecticut Democratic Party. Also in 1984, Reagan swept
the state by a huge margin, and Republicans took control of both houses of the
legislature, sweeping out fifty Democratic incumbents.
Republican control only lasted one term, and in 1986 with a strong showing by
Governor O'Neill, the Democrats retook both houses. This time, LEAP had mounted
strong efforts in thirty races, electing a new crop of twenty-five
issue-oriented activist legislators. Shortly after the election, a Progressive
Legislators Group was founded, with over thirty Democratic House members
participating out of a Democratic caucus of eighty-eight members. Irving
Stolberg was elected Speaker of the House. Over the next few years, Mandatory
Medicare Assignment, a hate crimes reporting and penalty bill, mail-in voter
registration, pro-choice legislation, a gay rights bill, pay equity, steps
toward universal health insurance, full health benefits for state retirees,
family leave, enhanced aid to cities and towns, and many other initiatives
passed with leadership from progressive legislators.
As these initiatives moved forward, the limitations of the tax structure became
increasingly evident. Revenues were unpredictable. Business grumbled. Poor and
middle-income people paid a disproportionate share of the tax burden. And the
overreliance on the property tax made it impossible for the cities (Connecticut
has three of the poorest cities in America amidst its wealth--Hartford, New
Haven, and Bridgeport) to prosper. Tax reform needed to be on the agenda, with
or without the Democratic governor's support.
A POLITICS OF UPHEAVAL
Conservative Democrats in the House resented the progressive gains and
especially disliked the encouragement Speaker Stolberg gave to the progressive
group. So, with active support from the governor's office and from
business-oriented lobbyists, a moderate caucus was formed shortly before the end
of the 1987 session.
In early 1989, as the Democrats in the House prepared to organize themselves,
twenty-three conservative Democrats secretly cut an unprecedented deal with the
Republicans to overthrow Speaker Stolberg and replace him with a popular
conservative Democrat, Representative Richard Balducci. This daring and damaging
coup sent shock waves through the capital, but the initial dismay of
progressives dissipated as Balducci proved to be a fair and accommodating
leader, and progressive legislation continued to be enacted.
Also in 1989, with the economy softening, the Office of Fiscal Analysis
predicted a major revenue shortfall. Several progressive members of the
Progressive Legislators Group who were also members of the Finance Committee,
led by Representatives Geri Langlois and Juan Figueroa, called for a public
hearing on the possibility of an income tax. A bill was prepared, hearings held,
and support grew. On a closed vote in caucus, a bare majority supported an
income tax. But with the certainty of a veto by Governor O'Neill, the idea was
dropped. However, a major tax increase was enacted, raising the sales tax to 8%,
enacting a 20% surcharge on business taxes, and utilizing accounting gimmicks
and one-shot revenues to balance the budget. Eventually, the increases adopted
raised less than half the anticipated revenues.
Largely due to fiscal issues, Governor William O'Neill, hovering at 20 percent
favorable ratings, announced that he would not run again. That left a race with
an unusual field of three candidates. John Rowland, a conservative congressman
from Waterbury and the Republican candidate, took the Pledge and proposed to
balance the budget by deep service cuts and massive layoffs of state employees.
Bruce Morrison, the Democratic candidate, adopted a platform calling for a
voters' non-binding referendum. That position got him through primary day, when
he defeated tax-reform advocate Bill Cibes, but not through the general
The third candidate in the race, Lowell P. Weicker, Jr., had been ousted from
the U.S. Senate after eighteen years by Joseph Lieberman in 1988, largely due to
massive defections of Republican voters and activists who thought him too
liberal. In February of 1990, Weicker announced as an independent, shedding his
ill-fitting Republican clothes. When his turn came to address the income tax,
Weicker said "Everything will be on the table." However, he also said
that passing an income tax in a recession would be "like pouring gasoline
on a fire." He managed to muddle through without being forced to fully
reconcile his positions.
Weicker was elected with 41 percent of the vote to 38 percent for Rowland. The
Democrat Morrison came in third with 21 percent. Weicker became governor without
a clear position on the tax issue and without a single member of his own party
(A Connecticut Party) as a sure ally in the legislature.
Shortly before the legislative session convened in January of 1991, the Office
of Fiscal Analysis released budget projections that showed that on a current
services budget (increases only for inflation and court-mandated or
contractually mandated expenditures), the state would be an astounding $2.7
billion short, out of a total budget of just over $7.5 billion. This was a
shortfall of over 35 percent, by far the worst percentage shortfall of any state
in the country.
Why was Connecticut's fiscal crisis so severe? First, Connecticut's recession
began earlier and ran deeper than almost any other state. Defense cutbacks,
coupled with a collapsed real estate and construction industry and the severe
contractions in insurance and banking, left Connecticut's economy reeling. In
addition, federal cutbacks in state aid since 1981 added up to $1.2 billion less
aid per year. At the same time, state spending increased dramatically, with the
biggest increases coming in education aid to towns, corrections (many new
prisons, many new guards), and in Medicaid. And finally, as noted, the state's
tax structure was tremendously sensitive to shifts in the economy. So while the
revenue stream's natural expansion during the boom years masked the structural
problems, now in 1991 the revenue stream collapsed with the weight of the
Sales taxes, which had grown so rapidly during the late 1980s, were projected
flat. Corporate taxes, also booming in the 1980s, fell 30 percent in some
quarters, dropping hundreds of millions of dollars below projections. The 1980s
were truly over. In all, the tax structure was to produce $500 million under
projected revenues for 1990-1991, and worse was expected later.
How to balance the 91-92 budget became the forum for a major confrontation over
the state's fiscal future. It also set the stage for a wrenching struggle within
the Democratic Party over how to tax, how to govern, and how to win politically
-- a debate that mirrored the party's fissures at the national level and which
lent even greater intensity to the legislative battle.
THE TAX REFORM BATTLE
The budget debate began in earnest on February 13, 1991 when Governor Weicker
(who had named Bill Cibes his chief budget advisor), in a shocking budget
message, called for $1 billion in cuts, $900 million in borrowing to cover the
past shortfall, and a flat 6 percent personal income tax with a steeply
progressive exemption of $24,000 for a family and $12,000 for a single taxpayer.
Even Weicker's closest supporters were taken aback by his embrace of "the
dreaded income tax." It was vintage Weicker, throwing down a gauntlet. It
was also a decision of great political courage and leadership, which Democratic
governors had not exhibited on this issue in the previous 16 years.
Weicker said his decision to support the tax was "driven by the numbers"--nothing
else would work to balance the budget. He also made it clear that he wanted to
use the revenues to lower business and sales taxes as ways to stimulate the
economy, and in return his plan got real business support. Most observers
believe that his position as third-party governor also made it easier to embrace
a plan with so many political risks for those who voted for it. It cast him as a
central and heroic protagonist, a posture he clearly relished. And he also
clearly aligned himself with the legislature's progressives, who had called for
an income tax for years. He accepted this alignment and much joint strategy was
What followed was a fierce tug-of-war that lasted eleven months. In support of
tax reform were the Taxpayers Alliance to Serve Connecticut (TASC), a newly
formed grass-roots coalition that included major unions, human service
advocates, church groups, education organizations, and the League of Women
Voters. Its chair was John Olsen, president of the state AFL-CIO; its two key
staffers, Nick Nyhart and Ethan Rome, were from the Connecticut Citizen Action
Group. In addition, the business community supported reform, seeing business tax
increases as the alternative if the income tax failed. Leading newspapers,
especially the Hartford Courant and the New Haven Register, came
out in support of an income tax. A handful of courageous Republican legislators
spoke out, and substantial majorities in the Democratic caucuses in the House
and Senate were solidly behind the effort for the first time. In May 1991, a
timely boost was given when Speaker Balducci, who had opposed an income tax for
seventeen years, reversed his position and supported the income tax proposal.
Arrayed against the tax, and for deeper spending cuts, were the majority of the
Republican caucuses, including the House and Senate leadership, and Republican
Party Chairman Richard Foley. They sensed a 1992 hot political issue, and they
also hated Weicker for deserting them and costing the Republicans their best
shot at the governor's mansion in sixteen years. The Connecticut Taxpayers
Committee, founded by former Senator Tom Scott, the state's most prominent New
Right conservative, organized rallies around the state and did assiduous and
acidic press work.
This group was joined, loudly and proudly, by a group of conservative Democrats
in the House, and, surprisingly, by the two top Democratic Senate leaders. Some
of this was sheer self-protection and political expediency, given the assumed
negative reaction of voters. But they buttressed their position with a strong
political argument about the tax being the "kiss of death" for the
Democratic Party, casting us once again as tax-and-spend liberals. The case was
most forcefully made by then State Democratic Chairman John Droney, who accused
a Democrat who supported the tax of being "Jim Jones asking your colleagues
to drink the income tax Kool-Aid." To these Democrats, the preferred
strategy was to get "Republican fingerprints" on the budget and tax
package, so Democrats could not be attacked from the right.
This fused group of anti-income tax Democrats and Republicans became known as "the
Coalition." Their alternative proposal called for more borrowing, deeper
spending cuts (though not by a lot), and an expansion of the state's 8 percent
sales tax to a large number of new items, mostly necessities, and an increase in
the rate. It also called for other new taxes, including a tax on new mortgages.
They admitted it was an ungainly package, but to them at least it avoided the
income tax. But in fact it was more than ungainly. It was regressive and
insensitive to the needs of the poor. It relied on precisely the same revenue
mix that had failed in the first place. If this plan had passed, the state would
have sunk significantly deeper into deficit.
DEADLOCK, BACKLASH, AND VICTORY
The battle raged through the spring. The regular session adjourned on its
constitutionally mandated date in June, with no budget. We came back into
special session, and June 30, the end of the fiscal year, came and went without
a budget. The coalition did succeed in passing a budget and tax package through
the House and Senate. In fact, they passed three. Each one was vetoed by
Weicker, who insisted that only an "honest budget" with a secure
revenue stream would be signed. And each veto was narrowly sustained, with core
support from progressive legislators.
On July 2, the House passed an income-tax-based budget, only to have it die in
the Senate hours later. The deadlock seemed unbreakable, and the pressure
shifted to the Senate, which was several votes short of passing a tax package.
Intense negotiations continued into August. The legislature felt more and more
pressure to do something, as Connecticut became the last state in the country
not to have a budget in place. Some argued to go ahead and override Weicker's
veto, just to get a budget. But a majority of the Democratic caucus in the House
held firm. The search continued for a few Senators' votes, as the top two
Democrats there still refused to help.
Radio talk shows sizzled. Tempers frayed. Family vacations were ruined. And the
pressure and vituperation from anti-income tax residents grew even more intense.
But the governor and his alliance with progressives held firm. The logjam
started to break when two Republican Senators said they could break from their
party and vote yes. But for one, a wealthy Greenwich stockbroker, the price was
a guarantee that there be no differential rate for unearned income. This meant
that wealthy taxpayers who had paid up to 14 percent in dividend and interest
taxes would now pay at the flat rate of 4.5 percent, which could result in huge
tax windfalls for wealthy taxpayers. Progressive Democrats gagged on this
notion, but the vote--in the absence of Democratic unity--was critical. Finally,
three Democratic Senators, all at once, switched their positions and agreed to
vote yes in return for specific provisions in the bill for business loans, tax
credits for moderate income taxpayers, and a commission to review the entire
structure. On August 22 at 1:00 a.m., the Senate passed the income tax on a tie
vote, with Eunice Groark, Weicker's lieutenant governor, casting the
tie-breaking vote. It passed the House later that afternoon and was immediately
signed by the governor.
But the year was only half over. Almost as soon as
the tax passed, the opposition swung into action. The Republican leadership saw
a great potential for electoral fallout. Tom Scott began to organize a statewide
rally. And calls began to come loudly to reconvene in a special session for "Repeal."
The fertile ground for their efforts was the anger and frustration felt by so
many in Connecticut in this recession. It was, indeed, as many have said, a
terrible time to pass a new tax.
There were other problems. First, for many people the initial withholding
amounts were inflated because it took time to get the system up and running, so
four months of tax withholding were compressed into three. These administrative
errors caused huge public outcries and played into the hands of the opponents.
One irate radio caller who was making $42,000, whose annual tax liability was
$526, said he was being withheld $200 a month--a 400 percent overcharge. Second,
the break given to capital gains, dividends, and interest, dropping from 14
percent to 4.5 percent of regular income, meant that some very wealthy people
(including Lowell Weicker) got a very substantial break. This obvious inequity
allowed the tax opponents (who steadfastly oppose any graduated rate) to charge
that the plan was skewed to the rich and to cast themselves as the defenders of
the middle class.
On October 5, artfully timed for the week after withholding began, the
anti-income tax rally was held at the Capitol. An angry crowd estimated at
30,000 to 40,000 called for political retribution, burned Weicker in effigy, and
spit and cursed at him as he walked through the crowd. Thus began the most
withering political assault I have seen in state politics. Legislators received
up to fifty calls a day. Private offices were picketed. Radio talk show hosts
called legislators at home first thing every morning to lobby them and harass
them. Several were physically threatened, and many removed their legislative
license plates to avoid being noticed. Hit lists were prepared, and "Legislators
Du Jour" were named as if they were a meal to eat.
The sense of mortal risk was confirmed and magnified when New Jersey's
legislative election results came in. A chill wind blew through the state's
politics, and the parallels were seemingly strong. The anti-income tax forces
began making calls to legislators wishing them a "Happy New Jersey."
All in all, it was a pretty grim period, just one year ago.
'REPAIR, DON'T REPEAL'
Yet hardly a single legislator caved in. Legislators continued to receive
support from TASC. In addition, several major unions, led by AFSCME,
commissioned a poll by strategist John Marttila, which showed that people could
support an income tax but were absolutely in shock over the amount of the tax
and inequities in the system. We responded to that anger with the strategy
suggested by Marttila of "repair, don't repeal." Repair meant lowering
taxes on middle class taxpayers. With one stroke, it responded to two of the
most pressing concerns: first and foremost, the absolute tax burden on
recession-ridden middle-class taxpayers; and second, the strong feeling that the
rich were getting away with it again. The plan proposed lowering taxes by
anywhere from $400 to $800. It included a $2,000 dependent exemption, which
responded to the concerns of larger families. For example, a family of four
earning $75,000 would have paid $2,300 instead of over $3,000. The cost of these
reductions was to be borne by the taxpayers earning over $114,000 with a 6.75
percent marginal rate added on income over that level.
Suddenly, the advocates of repeal were on the defensive. The votes were not
there to override a Weicker veto, so if repeal was impossible, why not at least
support a repair that could put $600 into the pockets of those hurt the most by
the tax? If anti-income tax legislators voted against repair, they would raise
questions about their real commitment to the middle class. But if they supported
repair, they would help make the tax more palatable, thus depriving themselves
of a major campaign issue.
As the special session moved forward in December, it was clear that while a
majority would support repeal, they had gotten no closer to the two-thirds veto
override threshold. More and more, the talk turned to repair. On December 9 and
11, the House and Senate voted to repeal the tax. Weicker vetoed the bill hours
later, and his veto was sustained by a 65-84 vote, 17 votes short of two-thirds.
One day later, the TASC ad campaign, "Just Fix It," hit the airwaves
in force. A Hartford Courant poll showed a clear majority wanted the tax
repaired. When the repair amendment was offered, an anti-income tax Democrat
used a parliamentary maneuver not used in Connecticut in twenty years to place a
substitute amendment on top of the repair. When Speaker Balducci ruled the
maneuver out of order and the Republican leader challenged the ruling,
twenty-one anti-income tax Democrats voted with the Republicans to overrule the
Speaker and adjourn. Ironically, it was almost the same twenty Democrats that
had put him in office three years ago who now deserted him.
But while the special session failed to repair the income tax, the bottom line
of the issue as 1991 came to a grueling close was that Connecticut had passed a
major progressive tax reform program, including the income tax that had been
talked about and fought for years.
THE VOTERS' VERDICT, 1992
Stinging from their defeat in the fight, but buoyed by the election results in
New Jersey, the anti-income tax groups and the Republican Party set out to claim
their expected windfall at the polls in 1992. Target lists were drawn. Talk
shows buzzed with threats of revenge. And anti-tax candidates sprang up in
districts all over the state.
At the same time, those of us who supported the tax also went to work in what
we knew would be one of the most difficult election campaigns we could face. The
TASC coalition prepared materials defending the tax and making "repairing"
the tax the focus of many campaigns. In addition, LEAP, the House Democratic
caucus, and PROPAC, a political committee formed by progressive legislators in
the House, pumped substantial money and technical assistance into a number of
Governor Weicker and his A Connecticut Party also gave many candidates a real
boost. Because of his first-place finish in 1990, A Connecticut Party occupied
Row A on the 1992 November ballot. Back during the fight of 1991, Weicker had
said that for people who "stood shoulder to shoulder with me in this fight,
I'll stand the same way with you when election time comes around." Weicker
kept his word, and A Connecticut Party endorsed 85 Democrats, all for the income
tax, which allowed them to appear twice on the ballot, in Row A and Row C.
Weicker also helped pro-income tax candidates by announcing grants and new jobs
initiatives in selected districts. Several businesses announced plans to stay
and expand in Connecticut.
Another critical factor that helped was the announcement in early July that the
1991-92 budget was balanced, and in fact in a slightly surplus position, thanks
to the income tax and the spending reforms enacted by the General Assembly in
1991. Put simply, the tax worked. It ended five straight end-of-year deficits
and showed that the tax was indeed helping to stabilize the economy. That
argument was a crucial one, made in districts all across the state from that day
The first key test came in the September primaries, where in a dozen races the
income tax issue was the demarcation line between candidates. In eleven of
these, the pro-tax reform candidates, were successful. Afterwards, Tom Scott
said that the primaries were not the real test, because only Democrats could
vote. Wait, he said, until November, when everyone would cast their ballots.
For the general election, Democrats developed a very nice tailwind, as the
Clinton campaign took a substantial lead in the state. Connecticut had voted
Republican in every presidential race since 1968, and Democrats had to overcome
that deficit. This time, Clinton's victory certainly helped in close races,
though Connecticut voters are well known for splitting their tickets
Finally, election day arrived, the end of a two-year period of struggle and
crisis. When the results were counted, Democrats won solid victories, retaining
control of the House and the Senate, ironically enough by the same margins that
existed before the tax fight--87-64 in the House and 20-16 in the Senate.
Perhaps more important, in the races where pro-income tax candidates were
running, 52 out of 58 were elected or reelected. To top it off, tax nemesis Tom
Scott, who had narrowly lost to Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro two years previously,
was beaten almost two to one in their rematch in New Haven's Third Congressional
It is risky to make comparisons between two very
different situations, and it is also true that New Jersey's story on these
issues is far from over. However, I believe several factors did contribute to
Connecticut's pro-income tax movement faring better than New Jersey's in 1991.
First, the tax reform package lent itself to a more salable message. While New
Jersey's package included a sales tax increase and was linked to an urban school
aid increase, Connecticut's package included a sales tax decrease (though not
enough of one) and a business tax decrease. This allowed Governor Weicker and
the legislature to promote the tax as necessary to economic revitalization and
job growth. Business support for the package helped make that case. In addition,
the progressivity of the package was such that, after the initial shock wore
off, many people realized they were not paying nearly as much as they feared. In
addition, the spending cuts and budget reforms on the spending side helped show
that the tax was not simply a "license to spend."
Second, a true alliance was built between the governor and a core group of
legislators. This allowed for genuine give-and-take, strategizing, and plan
changing to suit legislative and political needs. Many legislators felt they had
a stake in it, while New Jersey's program seemed to come solely from Governor
Florio, with little communication or consultation.
Finally, the fifteen years of patient, determined progressive organizing paid
enormous dividends. There was a strong, principled, and well-positioned set of
legislators ready to wage the fight regardless of the cost. And there was a
strong progressive organizational structure outside ready to swing into action,
create a new coalition, and go out and organize in defense of the legislators,
who in turn kept the grass-roots organizing in touch with the real choice-making
at the Capitol. The building of firmly rooted progressive organizations by LEAP,
the mutual support between these organizations and progressive elected
officials, and the nurturing of community all combined to allow legislators to
withstand the withering pressures they faced.
As the 1993 legislative session begins, there is virtually no prospect that a
strong move to repeal the tax will be made. In fact, the legislature is more
pro-income tax than before. However, the unfinished agenda of making positive
changes in the tax will be very much in the forefront of debate. The biggest
obstacle to "repair" in the 1991 and 1992 sessions was that opponents
of the tax felt that "fixing" it would make it more palatable to
voters and therefore less of an issue to run on. This year, it is possible that
without a possibility of repeal, making the tax better for the middle class may
be the best alternative for everyone.
However, one reason for creating an income tax was so that the state could deal
with other major items on the state's agenda. Winning on taxes, however
satisfying, is not enough. We are hopeful that we have constructed a platform of
fiscal stability that will allow us to move on to these other critical areas of
state responsibility -- health care reform, education, poverty, and so on. If we
can do that, it will only be because of the victory, long in coming and
tremendously hard won, of fiscal sanity and of a public sector with the capacity
to deal with the very serious issues we continue to face. Of that victory, and
of the years of organizing that made it possible, people in Connecticut can be justly proud.
You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)