Election Year Math

There is a classic line from a Saturday Night Live sketch delivered by Chevy Chase portraying Gerald R. Ford in a 1976 presidential debate responding to a convoluted and complicated question on the economy: “It was my understanding there would be no math during the debates.” Since that sketch first aired, math has become a staple of political discourse because of — not in spite of — Chevy Chase’s everyman response to shifting facts and figures. Math is confusing, especially when you want it to be.

When Governor Dannel P. Malloy delivered his $19 billion state budget to the legislature on February 6, it was presented as evidence of his administration’s smart and effective transformation of the record-setting budget deficit he inherited when he took office three years ago to projected surpluses of $500 million or more in the next couple of years. The proposal slid just under the spending cap set by the legislature last spring. It manages to maintain current levels of municipal aid while delivering more than $200 million in tax breaks in an election year, using funds from the surplus. The bulk of that tax relief would take the form of a one-time $155 million rebate for sales and gasoline taxes, which amounts to $50 for individuals and $100 for couples meeting income guidelines. Other smaller tax exemptions and credits would benefit towns and cities and new business investors.

While the governor still has not officially declared his bid for reelection this year, his good-news budget proposal was an unmistakable political declaration that did not elude his would-be Republican opponents in November. The surplus, they note, relies on one-time revenues, deft borrowing and payment schedules, and extending taxes that were supposed to be phased out. The sunny budget message by the governor may only be a break in the clouds. His critics note that the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis reports that the state can expect another billion-dollar deficit by 2016, growing by another half billion by 2018.

The truth is that an improving economy is now helping to keep state budgets in the black by generating more tax revenue, but overall state finances remain shaky with persistent underfunded pension liabilities and a continued reliance on billions of dollars in borrowing. Even as he offered his upbeat assessment, the governor acknowledged these challenges February 6 in his proposed response to the improving revenue outlook. “We do three things,” he said. “We shore up our savings, we reduce our debt, and we give some back to the taxpayers.”

Because this is a state election year, the people of Connecticut will be hearing a lot of numbers in the next eight months that will add up to two very different results: things are getting better; things are getting worse. The math is confusing, and, unfortunately, there are far too many people working hard to keep it that way. The best guide for our political calculations may not be in the numbers, but in how we sum up our daily lives: are they getting better or are they getting worse?

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