When Is A Spending Cap Not A Cap?

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

“‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

“‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master— that’s all.’ – Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

A spending cap is a measure that prevents legislatures from appropriating money after a certain level of acquisition has been reached. The Connecticut spending cap is pegged to increases in the average growth rate of Connecticut’s personal income (PI) or the annual rate of inflation measured by the growth of the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Connecticut’s spending cap was added to the Constitution State’s Constitution as a surety to the public that legislators would live within their means at a time when the General Assembly was poised to vote in favor of an income tax proposed by former Governor And Spendthrift Lowell Weicker who, when last heard from on the alarming growth of spending in Connecticut, was rubbing his noggin and muttering, “Where did it [the surpluses brought in over the years by the Weicker income tax] all go?”

They spent it, you poor naive ninny. They spent it. What did you think they were going to do with the windfall riches you showered upon them?

Over the years, the two Republican governors who followed Mr. Weicker into office and the Democratic dominated General Assembly surreptitiously raised spending levels by loftily ignoring the cap, always a paper ball and chain. A signal that something was wrong with the Constitutional spending cap was obvious from the first; the legislature pointedly did not initiate a bill to implement the cap after the Weicker income tax was instituted. The purpose of the cap was never to bind a spendthrift legislature. It was meant as a head-fake to convince wavering legislators that, should they pass into law Mr. Weicker’s income tax, the General Assembly – which, in our constitutional form of government, is in charge of spending and appropriations – would not allow spending to rise beyond a prescribed level.

This was the era of confusion, doubt and duplicity. Then, along came Governor Dannel Malloy The Just, who promised in a campaign heard round the world to blow away all the smoke and smash all the mirrors utilized by his dishonest, two-faced predecessors.

There would be no sleight of hand in the Malloy administration. The days of Republican and faux Republican governors were OVER. Mr. Malloy, the first Democratic governor in more than 20 years, said several times during his campaign that he was not – NO, NOT – considering tax increases. Before radio talk show host Dan Lovallo was given the boot by The Talk of Connecticut, Mr. Lovallo used Mr. Malloy’s several campaign disclaimers as a lead into his show, followed by a notice that the speaker had initiated the largest tax increases in the history of Connecticut, leaving even Weicker the Bold eating Mr. Malloy’s dust.

There are numerous ways – some honest, others dishonest – to raise the ceiling on Connecticut’s spending cap. A governor might persuade the public that raising the cap would be in the public’s interest. But since the cap is a Constitutional provision, boosting it would entail convening a convention to change the Constitution, which in turn would leave the door open to measures decidedly unappealing to the Democratic dominated legislature. Constitutional conventions are Pandora boxes in reverse. Open Pandora’s Box and evils fly out; open a constitutional convention and “evils,” remembering always that “evil” is in the mind of the beholder, fly in. At a constitutional convention, it might be possible to propose ballot and initiative measures, operative in many states but frowned upon in Connecticut, the land of steady habits, by the state’s habitual power brokers.

In essence, the Constitutional spending cap is itself an unusually effective head-fake. Since implementing legislation was not passed at the time the cap was woven into the Constitution, the state is not operating under the Constitutional cap. Spending levels in the state are determined by a statute that was operative BEFORE the cap was included as a Constitutional provision. The current Connecticut state spending rule uses the larger of the rate of inflation or the growth in personal income as the basis on which, fiscal year after fiscal year, most state spending can grow. The statutory cap is easily circumvented whenever the governor and the General Assembly find such circumventions politically expedient. The governor has merely to sign a declaration of fiscal “exigency,” after which the legislature can expend dollars in excess of the cap upon a 60 percent vote of approval in both chambers.

The inventive Malloy administration has found yet another way to “honor” the inoperative Constitutional cap while relieving any possible pressure to restrain spending — by removing costly items from the list governed by the statute that purportedly “controls” spending.

So then, we have in Connecticut an inoperative constitutional cap on spending combined with sleight of hand political accounting that will considerably lessen spending restraint by moving costly items such as state pensions from the ancient statute that has never efficiently controlled spending.

But there are no smoke and mirrors in Mr. Malloy’s government, NO SMOKE, NO MIRRORS in this rare, Alice in Wonderland environment in which a word – “cap,” for instance — means, as Humpty Dumpty used to say, “just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

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