Connecticut’s government is, to put it mildly, not popular. We’re generally a grouchy people, but our inherent crabbiness reaches new heights when it comes to the governor, the legislature, and any other manifestation of the government. Gov. Ned Lamont’s broken promise on tolls was absolutely the last straw for a lot of people, but trust between government and the people has been in the dumps for a long time.
How can that broken trust possibly be restored?
The conservative Yankee Institute for Public Policy released a comprehensive report outlining ways to make the government more open and accessible for regular citizens. “Connecticut’s complicated legislative process does more to keep voters out of government than to give them a voice at the Capitol,” the intro to the report reads, and “[W]ith a new legislative session just around the corner, that needs to change.”
It’s hard to argue with that. It’s also hard to argue with their suggestions, which are absolutely worth highlighting here. They suggest:
- Getting rid of public hearings on vague “concept bills” that bear little relation to the final bill text.
- A mandatory period of 24 hours between when language on a bill is made available and a vote in committee.
- More accessible public hearings that allow digital testimony.
- A “go list” for the Senate, similar to the one the House has – this would let us know what bills are being voted on when.
- The end of marathon overnight legislative sessions.
- Reforming “emergency certification” of bills that circumvent public hearings.
- Reform of the dreaded budget implementer bill, into which all kinds of mysterious items creep.
There’s more, but those are the highlights.
But there’s a problem with a lot of these excellent suggestions – they would require the process to be longer. The legislature seems to move at a painfully glacial place, right up until the last week of the sessions when, like a college student who slept through class all semester, they pull a bunch of all-nighters to finish as much of their work as they can.
As it stands right now, implementing the plans the Yankee Institute is suggesting would mean that even less gets done, because the price of a more open process is that it takes more time.
But there’s a fix for that – abolish the end of session dates and raise legislator pay. Make the legislature into a full-time, professional organization.
Our system was created for a time when government was smaller, the population was far less, and the business of the legislature was a lot lighter. A modern, complex state like ours with tons of pressing issues can’t be run this way. Massachusetts, for instance, has a full-time, professional legislature. New Jersey’s legislative session lasts for the entire year, as does Pennsylvania’s.
Connecticut, on the other hand, has to get absolutely everything done by the first week of June in odd-numbered years, and by May in even-numbered years. Any bills that haven’t been voted on by then vanish. Plenty of good ideas get shelved simply because there isn’t time.
A full-time legislature would have to be treated like any full-time organization. Legislators would need to be paid enough so that they didn’t need to hold another job outside the legislature. Right now this is one of the biggest barriers to entry. Members of the House of Representatives have a base salary of $28,000, so other work is a must for most.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, for instance, works for the state and municipal employee union (AFSCME). If that sounds like a huge conflict of interest, it is! Plenty of other members are lawyers, real estate agents, or have another type of job allowing them to make decent money without having to pull a 9-to-5 somewhere else.
The job, then, is not open to the poor, or to anyone in a line of work not compatible with the legislature’s schedule. I couldn’t do it. Could you? Isn’t that a huge problem?
So in addition to being full-time, pay needs to reflect the work being done. A legislator should be able to devote their full attention to their duties and their constituents without having to worry about making ends meet.
There is a danger that we’ll have legislators who sit in the government for decades, then, without doing anything else. So we can talk about term limits, maybe, and lobbying restrictions for anyone who is term-limited out. There are other issues that would arise. But I think the gains from a full-time, well-paid legislature are worth it.
After all, a better, more open legislative process is a good thing for a healthy democracy, and our democracy can use all the help it can get.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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