- Associated Press - Saturday, July 18, 2015

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - When major employers Aetna and General Electric recently claimed that proposed tax increases might force them to leave Connecticut, state legislators turned to an old stand-by: They created a commission.

In fact, they recently created two similar commissions - the Connecticut Competitiveness Council and the Commission on Economic Competitiveness - within a span of a few weeks.

They’re the latest in a long list of panels, task forces, centers, boards and summits established over the last two decades to examine the state’s economic climate, often derided as unfriendly to business, and recommend ways to make Connecticut more nationally and internationally competitive. Nearly all the groups produced reports - well over a dozen - to the legislature and governor. And that advice has been largely ignored.

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, contends the new Commission on Economic Competitiveness will be different, saying it’s intended to be much more than a task force. He said the permanent body will be heavily weighted with members of the business community, likening it to existing state commissions that represent interests of women and minorities.

“The intent of this commission is to really be a voice for those elements of our community who want to advocate for business solutions that will make our state more economically competitive,” he said. “It has a much higher status and importance, I think, than say a task force typically would.”

The Commission on Economic Competiveness was included in an amendment to a budget-related bill passed during the June 29 special legislative session. Just weeks before, on June 3, the General Assembly passed a different bill creating the Connecticut Competitiveness Council. That group was charged with encouraging private sector business growth and evaluating the state’s economic competitiveness.

Freshman Rep. Pam Staneski, R-Milford, questioned why both groups were needed, especially after years of prior panels and reports.

“When this came up on the floor, I said, ‘wait a minute, wait a minute,’” she said. “Let’s stop living ‘Groundhog Day’ and let’s stop the insanity and let’s really do something.”

Rep. John Shaban, R-Redding, called it a “sanctimonious face-saving measure” by lawmakers to make up for increasing various corporate and business taxes, some of which were ultimately rolled back.

The new commission and council were formed as another group continued reviewing Connecticut’s tax structure to find ways to modernize the system, making it more fair, equitable and stable. A report is expected this year.

Fred Carstensen, director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, recalls being a member of a now-defunct council in the late 1990s. He said the group did some interesting work, such as highlighting how Connecticut was “over-retailed.” He also was involved with another organization in the 1990s that examined successful economic development efforts in other states, such as a Pennsylvania program where Penn State’s engineering school works with companies to improve production.

But Carstensen laments how the groups’ recommendations had very little impact on public policy and often “just disappeared from view.”

“In general, we create these blue ribbon commissions and other things. Generally, there’s some coverage of them, there might be a hearing and a presentation,” he said. “But it’s very rare in my experience that they actually result in any actual effort on the part of the legislature to do anything, or the executive. They seem to be mostly window dressing.”

The ideas suggested over the years for making Connecticut more competitive have been wide-ranging.

A 2012 report on business taxes issued by a task force created by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy called for phasing down sales taxes on consumer purchases, phasing out the corporate income tax surcharge and phasing out the minimum corporate income tax and business entity tax. None of those things happened, although Malloy called for lowering the sales tax rate and eliminating the business entity tax in his original budget proposal this year.

At least a few recommendations have been followed, however.

Carstensen credits Malloy with relying on analysis that his center provided for the $400 million tax credit deal reached between the state and United Technologies Corporation. Malloy and lawmakers also followed through with a recommendation from a 2009 report by the legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee to allow liquor and grocery stores to sell alcohol on Sundays.

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