I’ve been covering state and local government in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts since 1996. And if there’s one thing I can tell you with certainty, it’s that few public officials favor tighter ethics rules. Indeed, opposition on the part of elected officials to stricter conflict-of-interest laws, for example, is an immutable law of physics.
Why? It’s pretty simple, actually. Such laws would limit their options in how they earn outside income and how much they can advocate for causes in which they have a financial stake. Financial opportunity over fairness and principles, plain and simple. Add lobbyists to the mix and you have an unholy alliance. So, as the old saying goes, the scandal is not about lawbreaking; the scandal is about what’s actually legal.
Connecticut has a long and sordid history of poor ethics laws. The first time I ever really noticed it was seven years ago when I found out that then-House Republican Leader Larry Cafero had a side gig at Brown Rudnick, a law firm that regularly lobbies lawmakers in the Capitol. Though Cafero did not lobby for Brown Rudnick clients (others at the firm were allowed to), the law actually allowed the firm to lobby Cafero himself. That just struck me as insanity.
Most recently, Courant columnist Kevin Rennie reported on state Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, who serves as executive director of Emerge Connecticut, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for public office. Flexer is paid to work for Emerge America, Emerge Connecticut’s parent organization, though she would not tell Rennie how much.
Shockingly, Flexer got clearance from the Office of State Ethics to solicit and accept donations to Emerge America from lobbyists. Those would be the same lobbyists who no doubt seek support for a wide range of issues from Flexer, who co-chairs the powerful Government Administration and Elections Committee, whose website says it “has cognizance on all matters relating to,” among others, the Office of State Ethics itself. Is the web tangled enough for you?
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, is education coordinator for AFSCME, one of the largest public-employee unions in the nation. The ethics office has told Aresimowicz that nothing prohibits him from voting on contracts negotiated by AFSCME or, for that matter, bills favored by the union. Several other current and former lawmakers were in the employ of labor unions, according to an exhaustive report by the libertarian Yankee Institute.
Harken back to 2013, at roughly the same time Cafero’s liberties came to light, when two-time gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley marched into the Capitol and blasted a system that permits those who pull the levers of power to have obvious conflicts of interest. The former private equity king called the current practices “sleazy” and proposed an ethics reform package that would have made criminals out of half the General Assembly.
Though it doesn’t go nearly far enough, the ethics office is, to its credit, proposing a change to the law: lawmakers could still do what Flexer does but they would be compelled to publicly disclose the conflict and essentially state in writing why the public shouldn’t care whether they vote on the matter.
The rules are so loose that two lawmakers – Kevin Witkos and John Kissell, both Republicans – don’t even have to recuse themselves from voting on energy bills that affect their employer, the energy giant Eversource. Much to their credit, however, both men have in the past voluntarily disqualified themselves from voting on such matters. That sort of says it all, doesn’t it? Connecticut’s ethics laws are so lax that some lawmakers refuse to take advantage of them because they realize how bad it would look.
One of the reasons for all these conflicts is that these lawmakers’ status as part-time legislators demands that they have outside jobs to pay their bills. And they must be jobs that allow them the flexibility to take time off to attend legislative sessions, committee hearings and the like. Their base salary is $28,000, though most make more through chairing committees, collecting unvouchered expenses and filing for mileage reimbursements.
My colleague Susan Bigelow argued recently for a full-time legislature with higher pay. I would pay the lawmakers considerably more (maybe $90,000 per year with no outside income) but only if we dramatically reduced their numbers.
Why, for example, does a little state like Connecticut need a bicameral legislature of 187 members? I agree with WNPR’s Colin McEnroe. Give them a good raise but reconfigure the General Assembly to, say, one body of fewer than 100 members, similar to Nebraska’s unique and nonpartisan “Unicameral.” If 75 full-time men and women and their army of staffers in Hartford can’t run the legislative branch for a state of 3.5 million people, then we’re screwed.
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 email@example.com.
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