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Bill Cibes, a force in CT politics and higher education, dies

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Bill Cibes, a force in CT politics and higher education, dies

Feb 16, 2024 | 4:35 pm ET
By Mark Pazniokas
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In this undated photo, former state Rep. William J. Cibes Jr. took his turn at a communal typewriter in the office he shared with other legislators. COURTESY / HARTFORD COURANT
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In this undated photo, former state Rep. William J. Cibes Jr. took his turn at a communal typewriter in the office he shared with other legislators. COURTESY / HARTFORD COURANT

William J. Cibes Jr., the incisive academician and politician who helped two Connecticut governors find drastically different solutions to seemingly unsolvable budget crises before returning to academia to lead the state university system, died Thursday night. He was 80.

Cibes grew up on a struggling farm in Kansas, studied politics in a doctoral program at Princeton, then mastered them as an old-school practitioner in the precincts of New London on behalf of other Democrats before his election in 1978 to the first of six terms in the state House of Representatives.

He was amiable if somewhat enigmatic, a liberal idealist who believed in progressive tax reform and the Great Society politics of Lyndon B. Johnson. But he was also a pragmatist who could count votes and help Gov. William A. O’Neill, a moderate Democrat, fend off tax reformers one final time in 1989.

In three years’ time, as the General Assembly’s leading expert on tax policy and then as the budget chief to Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Cibes would play central roles in crafting Connecticut’s last budget without a tax on wages — and its first that relied on one.

He became the president of the Connecticut State University system in 1994, retiring as its chancellor in 2006. Cibes served on the board of the Connecticut News Project, the publisher of The Connecticut Mirror, from its launch in 2010 until 2018.

His death at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington was announced Friday by his family. There will be no funeral, but a memorial is being planned.

Cibes came to Connecticut in 1969, settling in New London after joining the faculty of Connecticut College, a selective liberal arts school that offered an undergraduate experience far from the one he lived as a scholarship student at the University of Kansas.

He lived in a cooperative dorm for scholarship students who kept costs down by doing their own cooking, cleaning and maintenance. Cibes had grown up in a farmhouse without indoor plumbing during his childhood, sleeping in an unheated attic under a tin roof. 

They were biographical details that most candidates would have highlighted daily. Cibes rarely spoke of them.

“I don’t know that we made a big deal of it,” Cibes said during his gubernatorial campaign in 1990. “That was the way things were.”

Cibes met his wife at Princeton. They became engaged after two dates.

The abstraction of politics at Princeton, where he would argue policy with George Will, a fellow graduate student who would become a conservative columnist and informal adviser to Ronald Reagan, became reality in New London.

Cibes marveled to see machine politics alive and well. Connecticut was a state that long resisted open primaries, and the only path to office passed through local town committees. For a newbie poli-sci professor, it was somewhat akin to a young paleontologist finding a dinosaur.

“It blew my mind,” Cibes said, recalling seeing the organization function on Election Day.

Cibes overcame New Englander coolness to outsiders and New London’s town-gown frictions with Connecticut College by driving voters to the polls, stuffing envelopes and running headquarters, which could require skills more prosaic than political strategizing.

His wife, Peg Cibes, who died three years ago, once recalled that nominating speeches on his behalf made him sound like a candidate for janitor, not school board or General Assembly.

“The speeches used to run, ‘Do you know how many chairs he set up? Do you know this man scrubbed the bathroom? The windows?’” she said.

His modest start and ties to a bygone era established an emotional bond with O’Neill, even if Cibes’ policy goals were more allied with the liberals who repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, challenged O’Neill. In an interview in 1990, O’Neill described the kinship as a shared love of politics.

“It’s a profession. It’s an avocation. It’s your hobby. It’s really everything,” O’Neill said. “I see that in him.”

In 1989, House Speaker Richard J. Balducci asked Cibes to co-chair the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, even though Balducci was then an opponent of the income tax that Cibes saw as inevitable, and Cibes just had voted against Balducci in a bitter contest for speaker.

“He was one of the brightest people I had the opportunity to work with,” Balducci said Friday. “I needed good people there. He was amazing.”

Cibes crafted a tax package that extended the state’s 8% sales tax to an ever-widening circles of goods and services, making a regressive tax structure even more so. It passed, but when O’Neill announced his retirement a year later, Cibes ran for governor on a platform of undoing the 1989 package.

Cibes proposed cutting the sales tax from 8% to 5%, cutting the corporate tax from 13.8% to 10% and eliminating the sales on many services. To replace the $1.9 billion in lost revenue, he proposed a graduated tax on personal income, starting at 4% in incomes more than $25,000 and a top marginal rate of 8% on income greater than $100,000.

He lost a Democratic primary to Bruce Morrison. Weicker defeated Morrison and Republican John G. Rowland as an opponent of the income tax but hired Cibes as his secretary of policy and management and eventually signed off on a tax plan similar to what Cibes had run on.

Balducci, who dropped his opposition to an income tax when running for reelection to the House in 1990, became a key ally of Weicker and Cibes in passing an income tax budget.

When Cibes was selected to oversee a system that then included the four regional state universities, Weicker praised him as “one of the great public servants in Connecticut history.”

Professors who objected to the budget cuts and lack of raises during his tenure in the Weicker administration protested. Cibes pronounced himself as a believer in public higher education and an example of the opportunities it affords.

Cibes is survived by his daughter, Julia Cibes, of Hermosa Beach, Calif., and his sister-in-law, Judi Keegan, and her husband, Gene Keegan of Hazleton, Penn.