As the Connecticut General Assembly convenes for its 2011 session, the state's $3.7 billion budget deficit has emerged as the biggest story. Across the nation, state governments are strapped for cash and the austerity narrative is in full force -- cuts in social services, the public sector workforce and a full-fledged attack on unions are presented as difficult but necessary measures. Like Europe, the United States is entering the age of austerity -- and state governments are taking the lead.

Even under Democratic governors, notably in New York, Illinois and California, drastic measures to gut the public sector are on the table, and cynical rhetoric blaming unions for the deficits has become increasingly popular. The problem with the balanced budget talk in Connecticut, masquerading as "fiscal responsibility," is that many of its most staunch proponents turn a blind eye to several reasonable ways to cut the deficit. Consider three of New Canaan's representatives at the state level, Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26), Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36), and Rep. John Hetherington (R-125).

In curious defiance of mathematics, their version of "fiscal responsibility" does not include any tax increases -- maintaining the estate tax, increasing corporate tax rates or levying a statewide property tax are simply out of the question. Instead, social services and state employees have become the prime targets. Calls to freeze public employees' wages, cut their pensions and raise their retirement age have all become standard rhetoric from Connecticut Republicans.

The State Republicans proposals', outlined clearly in the Connecticut Common Sense Budget that Frantz, Boucher and Hetherington endorsed last April, unfairly target Connecticut's unions and working poor. The notion that state employees are comfortably sitting on wads of cash as the rest of us suffer through the recession is simply untrue. On the topic of unemployment, Boucher penned a particularly distasteful piece in the New Canaan Patch last April, noting "it has been said the best social program is a job." If only it were that easy. The recession has aggravated the levels of poverty and unemployment in our state, but Boucher's response has instead been to highlight the "unfriendly business climate" and call for cuts in programs that benefit the most needy.

There are, in fact, reasonable ways to approach the budget deficit that don't place the burden on the most economically disadvantaged. The yearly cost to incarcerate an inmate in Connecticut is roughly $40,000 and our state's prisons are filled with non-violent offenders of drug laws -- the majority of whom are African-Americans and Hispanics. Decriminalizing small amounts of cannabis would save the state millions -- both at the state level and in local police departments that waste valuable resources in fighting the war on drugs. And most importantly, it would combat the vicious cycle of incarceration that plagues urban communities.

Unfortunately, it was none other than Boucher who in 2009 used her position on the Judiciary Committee to filibuster a law decriminalizing possession of less than a half ounce of marijuana. Apparently, using state money to prosecute and jail offenders of marijuana possession is fiscally responsible. And yet, a mild corporate tax increase is somehow seen as irresponsible and intolerable.

There's no question that the state faces a budget shortfall, but it shouldn't be exaggerated in order for some to fulfill long-standing political ambitions. Republicans have persistently targeted social welfare programs and criticized organized labor--the current situation is no different. One ought to remain cautious when discussing the state's budget deficit, and intensely suspicious of those who argue it can be addressed without any tax increases. If cuts are inevitable, then the General Assembly needs to be particularly meticulous, creative and not force the least well off to shoulder the costs.

Cole Stangler is a New Canaan constable and member of the Green Party.