Hartford is Broken

January 21, 2014

Last Spring in Hartford the cherry blossoms bloomed, the robins were chirping and too many lawmakers at the Capitol were ignoring an opportunity to do the right thing.

The senate was debating a bill entitled AN ACT ESTABLISHING THE CONNECTICUT STATE-WIDE PORT AUTHORITY. The bill set up this quasi-public agency to organize the development of ports in Bridgeport, New Haven and New London and established a 15-member board to oversee the authority.

The proposed law said the board would be subject to state and federal ethics and conflict of interest laws. That made sense.

The legislation included some important conflict-of-interest language. It said it is not a conflict of interest for a trustee, director, partner, or officer of any firm or corporation, or any person with a financial interest in such a person, firm, or corporation, to serve, providing he or she abstains from deliberating, acting, or voting on a matter concerning the person, firm, or corporation.

This means if you are on the board and you have a financial interest in a matter before the board, you must abstain from voting on that matter.

This is a good principle, and ought to apply to the legislature. Indeed, State Senator Joe Markley stood up and asked for an amendment that would have required the law to apply to public officials. Beyond just recusing oneself from a vote – Markley’s amendment said that any and all public officials who receive anything having a value exceeding one thousand dollars in any calendar year may not take official action on matters related to the entity from whom he or she received money.

Remarkably, Sen. Markley’s proposal to strengthen the law failed. The vote along party lines ended with 14 republican senators voting in favor of the change and 21 democrats voting against the change. (1 senator was absent.) This was a clear opportunity to clean up the culture in Hartford and nothing happened.

I was reminded of this broken system recently during a committee hearing concerning community health centers around the state. The question before the committee was the amount of financial assistance the state should give to these centers. One of the members works for a community health center that would be receiving money. She did not abstain or recuse herself and voted yes to continue the state funding at the current levels.

She has worked for the same health center for 25 years and year after year the center gets money from the state. Ironically, in 2006 the same lawmaker put out a press release lauding the health center she worked for and the more than $6 million it received from the state over the years.

Why should an elected official be allowed to vote on or deliberate over a matter that concerns a group they work for? It clearly is a conflict of interest yet it is allowed under the law.

I sincerely hope there is the will at the Capitol this year, to try once again to bring transparency to government this next legislative session.

Senator Welch represents the 31st district towns of Bristol, Plainville, Plymouth, Thomaston and Harwinton.