Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Realistic Reform

The legislature today is debating a contracting reform bill, which the governor may veto. Again. (See my list of vetoes for more information. It's #6.)

Later this week, the issue of campaign finance reform may finally get taken up. If all parties can agree, we may find ourselves with a public financing system, and with lobbyists and those who have contracts with the state excluded.

Will either of these measures, if passed, lead to less corruption and better government? Maine and Arizona both have public financing, and both states have seen an upswing in primaries, candidate diversity and competition. The "money gap" incumbents hold over challengers would either disappear or be greatly reduced. Candidates wouldn't have to spend most of their time fundraising. These would all be good things for Connecticut.

But would we see corruption decrease? Would we have better government after this? The legislative shakeup would start to provide some much needed fresh blood, but corruption may be much harder to remove. Here are some steps we can take toward both better government and less corruption:
  • Strictly Enforce Exisiting Ethics Rules: The state does have plenty of ethics rules on file. The legislature should be vigilant and be prepared to punish even the smallest of violations.

  • Longer Terms and Term Limits: Put a cap on the number of years a person can serve in the legislature. It doesn't have to be something silly, like a single or two terms. But perhaps 16-20 years should be enough time. This allows experienced public officials to remain in leadership posts, but also allows fresh ideas to enter the House or Senate on a regular basis. Lengthening terms would give legislators a break from constantly running for re-election. Perhaps half to a third of the legislature should be up for re-election every other year, with a significant number of incumbents taken out of the mix by term limits.

  • Legislative Pay Raise: Legislators don't make enough money to survive on. This can lead to questionable situations like Speaker Amann holding fundraisers for the charity he works for in his office. It also guarantees that members of the middle and lower classes can't afford to be in the legislature.

  • A Full-Time Legislature: The legislature has been running out of time to finish its yearly business for a long while, now. These special sessions can get tiresome. If they are full-time, they can react to changing situations more quickly and be able to finish the business at hand. We also won't have "midnight rushes" on the last day of the session, when a dozen or more bills are passed in the last minutes.

  • Sensible Redistricting: The legislature currently controls redistricting. This is a terrible idea. Districts for both the legislature and the U.S. Congress can and have been gerrymandered to keep incumbents in power. A retired panel of judges or some other worthy independent body could do just as good a job, and be more fair about it.

  • A Larger Legislature: Enlarge the size of the House and Senate. New Hampshire has 400 members in its House of Representatives! Why not 200-300 here? Smaller districts means less money spent on each race (although more money is spent overall), and constituents may actually get to meet their representative. The larger the legislature is, the more accurately it will reflect the political makeup of the citizenry.

I believe these ideas could help make our government and our democratic system stronger, more accountable, more flexible and more reflective of the population. If we add these to sensible contracting and campaign finance reform, we could find our state government in much better shape than it is now.


Independent1 said...

"Will either of these measures, if passed, lead to less corruption and better government?" Not likely. I listened to Don Williams this morning on WTIC, and he was going over this stuff, raising all of the no bid contracts for the Juvenvile Training Center, parking garages in New Britain and at Bradley, etc. While I agree the "no bid" contracts are an invitation to disaster, what he didn't say was that each of those projects was specifically approved by the General Assembly as "fast track" projects, not requiring bidding. And, as far as I can determine, Williams voted to fast track every single one of them! The legislature has the tools now to put some checks on the process, it just hasn't used them.

Genghis Conn said...

Exactly, Independent1. The legislature under the leadership of Moira Lyons and Kevin Sullivan didn't do its job, and I don't think that Williams and Amann do much better.

Franks said...

Dishonest individuals wanting to abuse their positions would not be stopped by any these measures, but I do agree that greater oversight authority has to be considered and exercised in order to be effective.

State employees should be given greater protections when they report abuses and State Grand Juries should be more readily available to review claims. The ability to avoid testimony before and Ethics Commission or legislative committee renders oversight in these forums meaningless.

Chris Murphy said...

I just came from the special session, and I have to say that I disagree with the notion that the clean contracting bill we passed today won't lead to cleaner or better government. Sure, bad people will do bad things no matter what the law tells them to do. I won't ever claim that the bill we passed today was a panacea of any sort, but it did make real change. From now on, we will have ongoing non-political (if that exists) oversight over state contracting, we will have transparent standards for privatizing state services, and we will assure that privatization doesn't simply turn good paying state jobs into low pay, no benefit private sector jobs. Also, it is important to remember that legislation often has effects beyond that of the words that make up the bill. This bill sends a clear statement that the legislature will not stand for further corruption or back scratching in contracting. Our action today WILL have an effect on the day to day decisions that government officials and contractors make, even if the law itself doesn't give us a 100% assurance that corruption will end. It is this kind of message that is unbelievably absent in Washington D.C. today. Amidst the daily revelations of the coziness between legislators and lobbyists, and the "above the law" attitude of the current administration, we don't hear a peep from the Republicans in Congress about ethics or lobbying reform. In fact, not one Republican in Congress has signed onto the Ethics and Lobbying Reform Act currently before Congress. In this case, it seems that silence speaks louder than words.

Genghis Conn said...

Sen. Murphy,

I don't think we can ever legislate a 100% assurance that corruption will end, but if the legislature is serious about enforcing rules both new and old, things should get better.

Just out of curiousity, how are the negotiations for campaign finance reform going? Any sign of a vote soon?

FrankS said...

Sen. Murphy,

It's great that you participate in the discussion here, thanks.

It's not just corruption in contracting, here's part of a story in the Journal Inquirer that I'm concerned about, "The Connecticut Development Authority, already under fire for losing $8.5 million on "nonperforming" loans in the 2002 and 2003 fiscal years, wrote off another $3.9 million in bad loans in the 2004 and 2005 fiscal years, according to a top official at the quasi-public agency. That's brings the total of write-offs to $12.4 million.

So who got the money -- which the taxpayer-funded CDA routinely makes available to businesses that are unable to get loans from banks or other private-sector sources?

CDA President Marie C. O'Brien, who provided the latest numbers today, said she isn't ready to make public details about the written-off loans, but that the agency's disclosure policy is under review.

"We're going to be reviewing the entire policy," she said. "But until we get a chance to review that policy and bring in some consultants who will help us determine what are the best practices for both public authorities as well as the private sector, we'd like to wait and hold off on commenting."

Ms. O'Brien must be joking, spending more on consultants to study this is insulting and having the agency decide it's own write-offs and refusing to release information on losses is a matter that the legislature should review.

Anonymous said...

Funny that with all this Ethics Reform push, the Campaign Finance continues to flounder without clear leadership!

Anonymous said...

How laughable ... what legislator hasn't called a commisioner to push a company from their district for state business. I sat in on many of these meetings and saw the arm twisting first hand. BTW that's both parties.

I can recall one powerful committee chair providing propriety info from one winning bidder to the local company he was pushing. The agency in question did not want to give him the full proposal which included the propriety info but a redacted version. He threatened them with an investigation. Clearly he was abusing his power.

The winner bidder price was $6M and the company from his district bid was $12 M and yet he still wanted the award reversed.

Aldon Hynes said...

Let me share a bunch of random reactions here, more as the spouse and campaign manager of a former State Rep candidate, and less as a blogger for a gubernatorial candidate. (Although some of my thoughts are tied to a recent post on the DeStefano blog).

My key focus is that we need to get more people involved in the electoral and governance processes. We need to make these processes more transparent. As an example, I don’t have problems with contractors and lobbyists contributing to political campaigns. They should have as much right to contribute as anyone else. The real problem isn’t so much that they contribute, but that their contributions are disproportionate to the electorate. Instead of trying to get people who are very involved less involved, we need to get people who are not involved enough, more involved.

The idea of term limits is appealing to me. I don’t have a good feel for how long different people have been in office. Does anyone have the average term length? How about the standard deviation? How much of an effect would term limits really have?

A pay raise for legislators and making the legislator year round makes a lot of sense for me. I’ve tried to recruit people to run for State Rep and too often, they have said that they just couldn’t afford to be a State Rep. We are not getting the candidates we should because of the low pay.

Redistricting. This is a big part of the problem that probably has as much of a chance as campaign finance reform. Both sides play this game to the advantage of incumbents and politically connected people. One friend suggested that redistricting ought to be based on watersheds. Others have suggested using transportation corridors. I would love to see a redistricting commission made up of geographers and ethnographers as a starting point.

I have friends in the New Hampshire State Legislature. I’m not sure that there system works all that well and I’m not convinced that we need a larger legislature. We have enough problems getting people to run for the seats we have.

However, there is a different idea that I’m very interested in. I believe that preferential voting could help out a lot. The most popular form of preferential voting these days seems to be instant runoff voting. However, there are other ways of approaching this. In Washington State the Representative districts are tied to the Senate districts. If we tied our Representative and Senate districts together so that there were 1 senator and 4 representatives from a district, and then you could preferentially vote for the representatives, perhaps even throwing in some sort of minority representation requirement, you could open up the process a bit.

I believe that if we can make the electoral and governance processes more open and more transparent this will do a lot to address the problems of corruption. It will also do a lot to helping find better solutions to many other problems we face in our state.

ctdem01 said...

Why do you not trust the voters? Term limits mean that you do not. I question whether you have faith in democracy.

Genghis Conn said...

If I've learned anything covering Connecticut politics, it's that people will choose incumbents over challengers unless given a really good reason to do so. People go with what they know. This may be reassuring to some, but it's not so great for good government.

To answer your question: I believe in the republic. It's a better form of government than the alternatives. But it isn't perfect, and no, voters don't always do what's best.

Voters are human: they can make mistakes. Term limits are a way of making sure that bad choices have a set lifespan.

From your handle, CTDem01, I'd guess that you're at least somewhat relieved that George W. Bush is limited to only two terms. If he were up for re-election in 2008... would he win? Are you sure he would not? Do you really trust the voters of this country not to re-elect him?

Aldon Hynes said...


"Many adults in the United States would vote for a Democratic Party politician in the event of a new presidential election, according to a poll by Gallup released by CNN and USA Today. 55 per cent of respondents would support a Democrat, while 39 per cent would back Republican George W. Bush."

I would like to see better challenges to incumbents. Term limits seems to be a sub-optimal way, but I don't have ideas about better ways.

I just read a blog entry about efforts in Massachusetts. Check out The Massachusetts Fair Districts Initiative Campaign.

Anyone wanna put some pressure on legislators to pass something similar here?

MikeCT said...

The House Democratic Caucus will be discussing the campaign finance reform bill on Monday morning.

Nate said...

I've been working on the Mass. Fair Districts campaign you spoke of, I'm the coordinator for 7 towns and have been busy calling Town Committees and collecting signatures. Obviously, when collecting signatures you get a certain number of people that hustle by and pretend they didn't hear you. But it's interesting to note that everyone who has engaged in a more than 3 sec. conversation with me has signed the petition--Republicans, Democrats, and 3rd parties alike. I'm a Democrat, and it's primarily incumbent Democrats that benefit from the current redistricting method in Massachusetts, but I think it's the right thing to do and in the long run will help get more responsive and representative Democrats elected. Besides, how can I be offended at what's happened in Texas if I don't try to end the same practice here?

Here's that link again (thanks for posting it, Aldon):