doug hardy composite via shutterstock / nikkytok
MATT DeRIENZO

Gov. Ned Lamont’s plan for tolls has been killed by members of his own party.

Good.

Not because tolls are necessarily a bad idea considering Connecticut’s transportation funding needs. It’s because, in a state where one party controls the executive branch, judicial branch, oversight of state agencies, and both houses of the General Assembly, it’s healthy for members of that party to be challenging each other.

We need dissent and division in the Democratic caucus. We need aggressive and skeptical journalism. And we need a stronger push than ever for structural and day-to-day transparency. Especially because we don’t have the checks and balances of a divided government, or a minority party even close enough to gaining power to have a meaningful seat at the table.

Extreme partisanship exacerbates the issue. A state Republican Party looking to disrupt meaningful discussion of issues in a nonstop quest to score political points, including the pettiest and most personal, puts a state Democratic Party in wagon-circling mode, pushes sausage-making conversations that should be public behind closed doors, and makes politicians hesitate to admit mistakes and call out wrongdoing in their own ranks.

The generally excellent stable of journalists covering state government and politics in Connecticut play into this dynamic by focusing too often on these games, and painting policy discussions through the lens of who won the mud-slinging contest, or incremental political positioning, of the day.

The “Ds” after the names of the misogynist who harassed New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart recently, and the misanthrope who mocked the death of Manchester Republican Town Committee Chairman John Deeb on election night, stand for both Democrat and “Dirtbag.” Fellow Democrats shouldn’t need a signal from party leadership or the safety of numbers to say that, immediately. And the state Republican Party press release writers should learn that condemning, at least once in a Blue Moon, the misconduct of their own party members, would allow them to score more political points when it comes time to criticize silence over Democrats’ wrongdoing.

And so Congressman Jim Himes, and Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy lined up to endorse Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim this fall, despite the corruption of Ganim’s past, and with silence about his administration’s problematic recent track record. To repeat the obvious, they need the Bridgeport party machine to get out the vote in future elections. Holding on to power trumps almost everything.

Party leaders were lockstep behind former Sen. Joe Lieberman until he lost a Democratic primary, and then suddenly felt willing to open up about all of the egregious parts of his record they suddenly felt comfortable disagreeing with.

We need more Mae Flexers in both parties. The Democratic senator from Killingly has gone out on a limb in the past to buck colleagues and party leadership to call out sexual harassment in her own party, and seek structural changes to hold the caucus accountable.

And frankly, despite his personal reputation as an affable guy, we need better from leaders such as House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz. The Democrat recently said he favors more secrecy, not less, in how legislation and state policy are crafted.

As the House Speaker, Aresimowicz presides over one of the least transparent and most problematic processes in state government, holding nearly absolute control over what pieces of legislation and amendments are called before the House or killed in the dark of night in the final days of a session. That final stretch is often the period when a “rat” can find its way into the state budget or some seemingly unrelated piece of legislation that lines the pockets of interests with the right lobbyists or campaign donation history, and when legislation that has near unanimous support of the General Assembly can die on the whim of a handful of people based on unclear motives.

Reform of this process, or greater transparency, would threaten the power and opacity of the speaker’s office. Opacity invites corruption.

Have we forgotten the time Aresimowicz, as the #2 in House leadership in 2012, discussed unilaterally killing legislation after a $10,000 donation was promised to the congressional campaign of former House Speaker Chris Donovan? People went to prison over that bribery scheme. But nothing really changed about how one-party control works in state government, and Aresimowicz ascended to the speaker job.

Senate Democrats revolting against a Democratic governor on an issue important to the day-to-day lives of Connecticut residents is how government should work. House Democrats revolting against the corrupting structure of secrecy and power that exists is essential to better governing.

Republicans would be wise to lean into any split among Democrats by engaging on policy questions instead of trying to score political points, while joining journalists’ in a broad call for more transparency in state government decision-making.

What, exactly, is partisan about the toll question, to begin with? Republicans are arguing for more borrowing to fund transportation. Not exactly a traditionally fiscally conservative position. And the most progressive Democrats could argue that tolling low-income motorists is a regressive approach to generating more revenue for the state. And one would think that lawmakers from border towns, Republican or Democrat, could find common ground that differs from people who represent communities removed from the major highways that would be affected.

Journalists must get comfortable in an outsized investigative focus on one party, because that party is in power.

In the background are shenanigans at the Connecticut Port Authority, lack of transparency and oversight at other quasi-public agencies, the Department of Children and Families, the pension system, a community college system in upheaval, lack of transparency by state police: Our state needs a blueprint for accountability.

Matt DeRienzo, a Litchfield resident, has worked in journalism as a reporter, editor, publisher, corporate director of news for 25 years, including most recently as vice president of news and digital content at Hearst’s Connecticut newspapers, and previously serving as the first full-time executive director of LION Publishers, a national nonprofit that supports the publishers of local independent online news organizations. He tweets @mattderienzo

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