The other day I was starving for fun, so I decided to take a look into the state income tax.
I’m not talking about my tax situation (though that should probably worm its way onto a to-do list sooner or later) or anybody’s particular tax situation. What I’m talking about is the implementation of Connecticut’s income tax.
I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but it took a while because it required a trip deep into a dungeon. The Record-Journal’s archives in electronic form go only as far back as 1998 with a couple months of 1997 sprinkled in, so in order to get back to the time of income tax inception it took rummaging through the clip files located in the depths of the building. Newspapers called this the morgue, the pre-digital era place where stories and photographs went to atrophy until someone decided to resuscitate them.
Why dredge up the income tax? Because even more than a quarter-century after its enactment, eliminating it remains a topic of public discourse. It’s a key part of the campaign for governor, with Republican Bob Stefanowski offering a plan to get rid of it over eight years. It’s nice to think it could be done.
The 25th anniversary of the state’s implementation was commemorated by financial publications like Forbes calling it a disaster. “25 Years, $13 Billion Lost: Connecticut Income Tax Continues To Fail,” was a headline from 2016.
The law signed by Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in 1991 called for a flat 4.5 percent income tax. Twenty-five years later there were seven income tax brackets, topping out at 6.99 percent. The size of state government was nearly a third larger (32 percent) at the quarter-century mark than it was when the tax was implemented.
In a meeting in 1990, the year before the income tax was enacted, Gov. William A. O’Neill told the Record-Journal’s editorial board: “I don’t have to look far to see states with greater problems than we have.” He noted Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. “They’re all income tax states.”
So there was reason to consider income tax a dirty phrase in the Nutmeg State. A tax had been enacted in 1971 as a way out of a $250 million budget deficit, but it was met by so much revulsion it was repealed a month after passage.
There was similar revulsion over the tax when it was tried two decades later — “I’ll sign every one that you put in front of my nose,” a Southington resident told the Record-Journal about a repeal petition — but this time around, the tax stuck.
In defending the tax, Weicker said he’d inherited a “fiscal pigpen” from politicians who’d put the state in “the worst financial state of any state in the nation.”
A stalemate of 53 days ended with the income tax. Connecticut was the last state in the union that year to adopt a budget. Then it was back to business, negotiating concessions from unions and trying to lure businesses to the state.
When Weicker’s term was nearing its end in 1994, those seeking to replace him were still talking about getting rid of the income tax.
The state at the time was lagging behind the rest of New England in recovering from a recession and, it was reported, “many residents are still gloomy about the economy.”
So my brief trip through time dredged up problems and worries remarkably familiar.
Back in 1991, the promised remedy had been to start the tax; now the promise is to get rid of it.
What’s also familiar is my skepticism.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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