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Open letter to CT Legislators

With four weeks to go in the legislative session, its time for the technology community to make the case for the bill (Substitute SB 1) that will help support the creation of a true innovation environment for Connecticut.  The lobbying sprint to the end of the session is not for the faint of heart. Here’s what I might say to our state leaders to make our case…

Dear Governor Rell, House Speaker Amann and Senate President Williams:

You are three gifted, articulate, experienced people who love this state. How will you balance what’s best for the state with what may seem to be the best in the minds of the voters next November? The technology and innovation community would urge you to invest as much as you can in the long-term to promote the type of growth that will increase our total future state wealth.

Connecticut is like much of America, we are caught in an economic development cycle of short-term gratification that shortchanges long-term growth.  And before we blame this on our political leaders, let’s admit that the fault probably lies more with us, your constituents. Watching the news from France – where riots have greeted a few necessary changes proposed to deal with economic realities – we can get a glimpse of what can happen when leaders act like leaders. It isn’t very pretty. So we sympathize with your situation.

Our public policies seem to revolve around a few basic formulas. Costs of providing services at the state and local level go up every year. However, unlike most states where these costs are spread out over new people who have moved in since the last budget, in Connecticut we have about the same number of people as last year.

In North Carolina you may have a next door neighbor who moves in from Pittsburgh into a new house in a new subdivision and picks up a share of the cost of the new teacher salaries and the widened country road. They pay new income taxes, new property taxes, new utility taxes and the list goes on. Not here. Our taxes go up because we’re the only ones around to pay. And, because there is a housing shortage here that drives up property values without substantial new demand (a future column, no doubt).

So I get hit with a bigger tax bill, and that’s just to cover the costs of keeping everything pretty much the same. In North Carolina things are new – and somebody else is paying. There is an implicit and inexorable tax on not having population growth, not the other way around.

At the same time we are a rich state, with many people making great incomes. It offends many of us that we can’t take some of that wealth and fix the stark contrast between the rich and the poor.  How can so many of our children lack basic necessities and good schools? This is so unfair, let’s try to fix the problem now. For others, the memory of our grand industrial past is so compelling that we try to mandate the kind of salaries and benefits that once defined Connecticut’s economy as one of the best in the world from the 1950’s through 1980’s.

And then there are the rest of us who simply look at our property tax bills and shudder, wondering who is mismanaging things and demanding lower taxes.

So the debate always tends to come down to a jousting match between fairness, mandates and tax relief.

Without changing the reality of your world, we want to change the debate a bit to one about where we are going as a state – not where we are – and how to plant seeds for future wealth instead of focusing on preserving and redistributing.  The downside – think of those French rioters – is that this may mean we cannot address the tax questions or the fairness questions until we have a better handle on what kind of growth we want.

Without a desire to increase our population, we need to advocate for the creation of a vibrant, innovation based economy creating even higher value jobs for the people who are here. The model economies of Singapore and Finland come to mind. If we don’t want more people, we have to make sure that every budget decision makes us more competitive and attracts the ingredients that build an innovation environment. Click here to check out some past columns for thoughts about what these are.

Yes, Connecticut has chosen a harder road than others. It is easier to simply open the door to more people than trying to fine tune every institution and system to develop more great jobs. Some places like central Florida are beginning to get a handle on how to do both.

We are clearly positioning ourselves at one extreme in the people versus value debate.  That’s okay if we admit it and gear our strategies and budget to this reality. Even if we struggle to achieve this, at least we will have given it our best shot.

So this leads to the point of this letter, please support Senate Bill S.B. No. 1 AN ACT CONCERNING JOBS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY.  Yes, it’s a lot of money, over $150 million, with some of it spread out over five years. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a bargain because it will give us some of the tools and the forum to talk about the future.  It is time to discuss what growth means for us, and to tell the world that we are getting serious about attracting and producing innovation here.

The three of you get it. We hear that in things you’ve done and said in the past few months. So the question is: how can we, the community that will help drive growth and the creation of new wealth, help you gain support for a long term strategy for state growth?

For this year, we have a few weeks remaining to find the answer.

Matthew Nemerson President & CEO Connecticut Technology Council

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