Ben Barnes, Photo by Chion Wolf
by John Dankosky - The man tapped to be the state budget chief by Governor-elect Dan Malloy told WNPR’s Where We Live that he’ll be looking for “shared sacrifice” from all state residents to help close a 3-point-8 billion dollar budget gap.
Ben Barnes was a top aide to Dan Malloy in Stamford, and helped the mayor craft the city’s budget. He told me they faced budget challenges during his time in city government, but never like this.
He said that a first priority as Secretary of The Office of Policy and Management is to change the way budgets are done. He expressed sympathy for those in the Rell administration who presented budgets during a recession, but…
“The process we’ve had over the last few years has clearly produced budgets that were balanced with more gimmickry than is good for the state of Connecticut. ” What kind of gimmickry? Well, too much borrowing; “sweeping” state accounts for money; expenses pushed off to future fiscal years.
Barnes says some of this will change right away, and some will change gradually with the promise by Governor Malloy to institute GAAP accounting practices, which give a more realistic picture of the state’s fiscal situation. ”It’s my goal to come up with a process that can get to an honest and forthright budget that identifies our great challenges, and confronts them head-on,” Barnes said.
Right now those challenges are so grim that every option needs to be on the table, Barnes said, including many “unpleasant” choices like tax increases. But, he told me that it’s too soon to start making choices from the long list of tax plans that will surely be coming his way from newly empowered Democratic lawmakers.
“It’s quite possible that raising some taxes is gonna be a better alternative than something else available. And, I’m sure that that will happen to some degree. But, I don’t think it’s fair to take a position on taxing very wealthy people or sales tax exemptions for bicycle helmets or any of those things without looking at the entirety of the choices that we have before us,” Barnes said.
These will be “unpleasant choices, which are going to be harmful to everyone to some degree.”
This urgency also means it’s time for a serious talk with state employees about concessions, something that could be tough for a Malloy administration which got an election boost from unions. ”The enormity of our problem…3, almost 4 billion dollars out of almost 20 billion is such an enormous hole, that the only way we’re going to solve it is with sacrifice from all involved. We have to look everywhere to find enough savings to bring this budget into balance,” he said.
Cities and towns will also be looking for help – a dynamic Barnes is used to from his time in Stamford. But now he’s on the other side. He favors a comprehensive look at tax policy for towns.
“They rely entirely on a property tax, which is stable, I suppose, but it’s very onerous for residents in particular,” he told me. ”I would love to see if we can find ways to diversify how local governments raise revenue. I think that would benefit local governments potentially, and allow them to diversify and be more stable as a result.”
But some of these ideas take time, including what he calls “The best long-term solution to our problem” – which is to create more jobs in the state. For now, in the short term, he has to help Dan Malloy craft his first budget. They make it public in early February.