COLUMN: In elected office, addition is easy; subtraction near impossible.

COLUMN: In elected office, addition is easy; subtraction near impossible.


As we all know, the legislative branch of the state government cannot seem to decide on a budget. Frankly, we should not be surprised. It’s taken years to get painted into this corner, and the bloodletting to come if they are ever to face reality square in the eye is going to affect hundreds of thousands of people in Connecticut.

There are many, many reasons we got where we are. Hundreds of pundits, including national ones, have been weighing in. This column will not attempt to add to this mountain of opinion.

But a little background on what anyone entering political office needs to know is in order. Here are three things every single person seeking a career in politics truly needs to understand every time they vote on a bill.

First of all, as economist Milton Friedman once famously said: “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”

That is because every action of government, whether it’s a new program to address a real need, fulfillment of a request by a block of voters, or the building of a new piece of infrastructure, develops a constituency. So when it comes to halting said program or closing said building because the money has run out, these constituents lobby relentlessly to prevent that cancellation.

Elected leaders love to spend money. Who doesn’t, especially if it’s someone else’s money? And when times are good, isn’t it easier just to say “Yes”? Of course. And that’s what happens. A good example was the effort, about fifteen years back, to build a municipal golf course in Wallingford. A committee was formed to analyze the possibility, and, because the mayor insisted that it be guaranteed to be self-supporting, eventually the idea had to be abandoned.

But if it had been built, and then had become a drain on the town government, any attempt to close it would have been met with howls of indignation from every golfer who used it. And who could blame them? This recreational facility had been built, and had now gathered its cadre of devoted constituents.

To take it away from them would be seen as heartless and unfair. And what politician wants to look like that? So the course would stay open, I guarantee it.

Secondly, not only do the receivers of services come to depend on them, but so do the providers of those services. There are thousands of nonprofit organizations in the State of Connecticut, and many of them provide a level of service built around the money they receive from the state.

In fact, the state, as it should, demands accountability that these agencies provide services commensurate with the amount of funding. But now the well is running dry, and the withdrawal of these funds is going to have a catastrophic, if not fatal, impact on many of them.

And they are presently deluging the state legislature to keep that from happening. More political pressure to keep the status quo.

That pressure is magnified tenfold if the providers are state employees rather than small nonprofits. And in Connecticut, it is practically a truism that the unions representing those state employees are the most powerful lobby in a state run by a party totally dependent on their support.

The Democratic caucus is between the proverbial rock and a hard place in attempting to craft a budget that won’t anger that constituency.

Thirdly, any piece of infrastructure requires operating money, maintenance money and eventually money to replace it when its useful life is used up. That is especially true of transportation projects, as we are seeing here in Connecticut.

Take the New Haven-to-Springfield commuter line. It will not matter if every seat on every train is full from day one on. This piece of transportation infrastructure will not pay its own way.

It will require millions a year in operating subsidies, maintenance upkeep, and, eventually, replacement of equipment as it deteriorates from use. There is not a passenger rail system on Planet Earth that truly runs a profit. By building this line, the Malloy administration has committed taxpayers for generations to come to pay annually for its upkeep. Another brick on the load.

This is not to suggest that these programs and infrastructure aren’t useful. They are … for the most part.

The crisis that we are in, however, is a result that, for decades, elected officials rarely considered the mathematics of political life: addition is easy; subtraction is near impossible.

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.

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