Then new Jeff Bezos-era motto of the Washington Post is “Democracy Dies In Darkness.” It’s a bit melodramatic for me — not exactly “All The News That’s Fit To Print.” But I’d say the essence of the Post’s adage is true enough.
The saying has a special meaning in Connecticut, where one of the happiest moments in state history occurred in 1975 when Gov. Ella Grasso signed Connecticut’s trailblazing Freedom of Information Act into law. The FOI Act’s motto is a little longer than the Post’s but, as a practical matter, inherently more important.
There have been several attempts in recent years to weaken that great law. The latest blow comes from the General Assembly, which has made the boneheaded move of exempting from FOI rules the board overseeing the generous $100 million gift from hedge fund CEO Ray Dalio’s foundation to help Connecticut’s lowest-performing schools and their at-risk students.
The involvement of private philanthropy in addressing public problems is to be applauded and Dalio in particular is to be commended. That having been said, the way lawmakers have structured it is bad policy on so many levels. First, the exemption was tucked into the massive 567-page budget bill. It’s a common practice but that doesn’t make it any less odious. By the way, for those of you — mostly conservatives — rooting for the demise of the news media, this is where the importance of watchdog journalism for all becomes obvious. Who else has the drive and patience to pore over page after page of this colossal spending proposal looking for noteworthy nuggets of outrage and opacity? But I digress …
The most efficient way to describe what’s wrong about shielding from FOI the newly created nonprofit corporation, the Partnership For Connecticut Inc., is to watch Democratic leaders in the General Assembly try to defend it. The video of the June 4 Capitol presser given by House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz and Majority Leader Matt Ritter can be found on CT-N. Fast forward to 8:25 when my editor Christine Stuart gets the ball rolling on a subject that, with each passing minute, is obviously something both legislative leaders don’t want to talk about.
With a straight face, Aresimowicz said, “I look at it as more of a nonprofit type a situation … Yes, we are putting money in there but it’s … We took a lot of grief yesterday about the little league that we sent money to. Do we mean they should also be subject to FOI?”
You heard it right. Evidently, the speaker of the house sees little difference between a kids’ baseball league receiving a five-figure gift and a new nonprofit board, whose members include state officials, set up to handle Dalio’s money and the state match.
Pressed by reporters, Aresimowicz conceded that the situations were “a little different.” Another reporter (I couldn’t see his face, so I’m not certain of his identity) threw a split-finger curveball at the leaders. He pointed out that indeed the situation with the Dalio gift was not only a “little different,” but in fact was the opposite of the youth baseball situation.
The state gave money directly to the little league for a nonpublic function, whereas in the case of Dalio, Connecticut’s wealthiest resident was giving money directly to a public entity — the state — to help other public entities — public schools.
The state would match Dalio’s gift and staff the new nonprofit’s board with some of the greatest bigshots in state government: the governor, the House speaker, Senate president pro tem, and the House and Senate minority leaders. Lamont would appoint three other members and the Dalio Foundation would name four. The corporation president would be a paid employee hired by the board.
At that point, Aresimowicz attempted to defend the indefensible. He said the new board would have to “issue reports” and if there were problems with openness, they could be fixed later. Ritter pointed out that the money will find its way to local boards of education which are indeed subject to FOI. Besides, Aresimowicz reminded us, there will be politicians on the new board. And if there are problems with how the money is being spent, politicians will be “shouting from every rooftop” because “that’s how we operate.”
Feel better about it now?
Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, and Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, filed amendments in an effort to add more public accountability to Partnership For Connecticut Inc., but sadly the amendments were never called.
This new nonprofit created by the state just looks like another of those 10 quasi-public entities such as the old Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority that, you know, used lots of taxpayer monies but lacked the accountability mechanisms associated with public agencies. Want to know what happened to CRRA? Just ask former Gov. John Rowland about the illegal $220 million loan CRRA made to the now-defunct Enron Corp. — a move that wasted millions of taxpayer dollars after the energy trading giant went belly-up.
Connecticut doesn’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to shielding state operations from public scrutiny. Democracy might not die in darkness but it will be seriously wounded if we don’t keep a close eye on the likes of Partnership For Connecticut Inc.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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