Proposed Cuts Threaten State's Future Strength

By William Cibes, Hartford Current

In Colonial Connecticut, farmers saved seeds each growing season to plant the following year. But if the winter was harsh and food stocks thin, they might be tempted to eat the seed corn necessary for their future survival. If they had taken such shortsighted actions, they would likely have not survived. State budget line-item cuts are like that today. "Eating our seed corn" by making imprudent reductions in critical fields will stifle our ability to compete economically.

In November, The Wall Street Journal asked a group of CEOs for ideas to rebuild global prosperity. Their top priority: "sustainable job creation." Their second: "education." The executives, including Louis Chenevert of United Technologies Corp. and Ronald Williams of Aetna, said, "Government should focus on policies that stimulate sustainable job growth by identifying national competitive strengths, encouraging innovation, reforming tax policy and avoiding regulatory disincentives. Policies should emphasize small and medium-sized enterprises and ensure the flow of credit to business." They also stressed that "an educated workforce" is critical: "if we don't address this, we endanger our children, economy, businesses and national security."

These are familiar refrains to Connecticut leaders. The nonpartisan staff of the bipartisan Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee, in a recent report, observed that "a new model for economic development ... has emerged that recognizes that innovation and entrepreneurship are fundamental to success in the New Economy." The committee recommendations included "make strategic investments especially in human capital, research and development, and infrastructure," and "ensure that [the] K-12 education system meets high standards in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics."

The Governor's Economic Strategic Plan echoes these themes, calling for specific actions to develop "talent and technology" and to "cultivate competitiveness" and "responsible growth."

Given this nearly unanimous consensus to invest in the foundations of future economic growth and job creation — innovation and education — then why is the latest deficit mitigation plan full of proposals to undercut the building blocks of economic development?

Why are "fund sweeps" of $6 million from the Biomedical Research Trust Fund and $10 million from the Stem Cell Research Fund being considered? Both support innovative research and development in an industry cluster that is one of Connecticut's leading competitive assets.

Funding for the film training program is proposed for elimination, as is funding for the small business incubator program and the manufacturing supply chain program run by the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology. Funds for programs to assist displaced workers to develop skills, to support early stage research in nanotechnology and to match federal grants for small business innovation are at risk of 25 percent reductions — on top of cuts of 40 percent to 50 percent already made from the 2009 budget.

Disguised by the vague term of "cutting aid to municipalities," another $72 million in cuts to educational grants and other educational programs is being considered. Because school districts will be halfway into the fiscal year when the proposed reduction would take place, state aid would be cut by an effective 6 percent. With little chance of increasing property taxes, the effect would likely be felt in the classroom. The state's largest and poorest cities, which depend much more than wealthy towns on state aid, would bear the brunt of the cut. Starving poor kids' minds, in municipalities where the educational achievement gap is highest, is hardly the path to economic competitiveness.

Many are taken in by the seductive call to reduce state spending. It might seem just as reasonable as eating the seed corn reserved for next year's planting may have appeared to hungry pioneers in the depth of winter. The consequences of certain cuts for Connecticut's competitiveness in the New Economy, however, would be just as devastating as emptying the granaries would have been to our agrarian ancestors.

William Cibes is chancellor emeritus of the Connecticut State University System and former secretary of the office of policy and management under Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr.

Copyright ©2009, The Hartford Courant