State government has a bad reputation as being bloated, lazy, inefficient, and incompetent. The past week has done nothing to help dispel that notion.
First came the revelation that the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) has been pushing bad data, which then informed some fairly important and expensive economic policies. That was closely followed by accreditors’ stunning decision not to approve a half-baked plan to merge all the state’s community colleges into a single entity. Oh, and to make things worse, it’s budget time again — and the legislature’s running late.
In short, Connecticut’s government looks like a total basket case. Some of that is just perception, but some of it is very real dysfunction and ineptitude.
This has to change. If the government can’t function well then no one will trust it, meaning that no one will want to fund it. A lack of funds will make government even less competent, causing trust to crater even more, and we get stuck in a death spiral. It’s not hard to believe we’re in that spiral right now.
This might make the drown-the-government-in-the-bathtub crowd happy, but for the rest of us it’s a big problem. We need government to exist and be competent for all kinds of reasons, from economic development to social services to highway maintenance and beyond.
How can we possibly fix this mess? My worry is that the political will to really reform the government doesn’t exist, and that it will take a much greater crisis than the one we’re in now to provoke real change. But if I had my way, here’s where I’d start.
Professionalize the Legislature
Back in the 19th century having a part-time, barely-paid legislature seemed like a good idea. The concept of a “citizen-lawmaker” who puts their life on hold to volunteer their services in the Capitol is still an attractive one. It feels less bluntly political and more like the town council or library board in our own sleepy hometowns. For a largely rural state of less than a million people in the 1800s, that made a lot of sense.
But it’s not suited to the much larger, more urban, and more diverse state we live in now. The legislature is actually a lot less accessible for the poor and middle class now, because the pay is so low and the time commitment during one part of the year so overwhelming. The legislature also tends to run out of time, meaning that lots of useful bills simply don’t get raised at all. A full-time, well-paid legislature would have more time and would hopefully be less full of rich lawyers and realtors.
State auditors eventually uncovered the problems with DECD’s data, but not until after a lot of damage had been done. Plus, did anyone who knew better review the plan to merge community colleges?
We need to have more oversight to make sure these problems don’t happen in the first place. That costs money, sadly, but there is something that could help with that:
Reform State Worker Contracts
I’ve said this before, but after a certain level of member comfort, unions can turn from being a progressive and necessary force into a conservative and reactive one. We need to establish guardrails that ensure that the kind of over-generous benefit and pension deal that’s crushing us now never happens again. Allowing the legislature to vote on contracts is one way to start doing this. Putting workers into 401(k)s instead of perpetually underfunded state pension funds is another.
Professionalize the Executive Branch
The best form of government in Connecticut is, surprisingly, the least small-d democratic. That would be the council-manager government that a lot of medium-sized cities and towns use. The gist is that the elected council hires, directs, and provides oversight to a professional town/city manager who then oversees the government itself.
Imagine if we did that statewide? Too many important jobs in each administration go to political appointees like former legislators. Let the governor set policy and propose/veto legislation, but maybe we could hire an apolitical executive — a state manager — to run and coordinate state agencies. If that person is doing a bad job, the legislature and governor could fire them and hire someone new.
These are just some examples of how we could start to rethink government, and begin to adapt it to a fast-paced, changing world. We need to at least start the conversation, so we can get our state back on track.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.