6/8/08

Lawmakers employed by labor unions

Unwatched foxes guard the chicken coop

It was a bad spring for transparency and fair play in Connecticut government. It began when the New Haven Register laid off its long time capitol bureau chief Greg Hladky and ended with the new ethics commission ruling lawmakers are entitled to special treatment.

The Hladky lay off means little by itself, but it continues a trend that has seen the number of reporters assigned to cover state government and politics shrinking over the last 20 years. Few cry over such a trend but it should be a concern to all of us, because if there is no one guarding the gate on behalf of the public, there’s no telling what those in power will get away with.

The lack of commitment on behalf of many news organizations to covering state politics led — in part — to the high-profile ethical transgressions of the last 10 years. Journalism awards for coverage of Connecticut scandals have been scarce because judging committees have correctly pointed out, if the press had been doing its job, our decade of darkness would never have happened. The Connecticut political press has shriveled to the point it can only provide us with detail of the obvious.

Helpful Reporting

There are flashes of illumination. In late March, the Hartford Courant reported on a decision by the new citizens’ ethics commission that will allow attorneys who work for the legislature to represent lawmakers accused of violations. Commission members voted against adopting a staff recommendation that said such use of taxpayer funding is unfair.

The public embarrassment created by such reporting might force the commission to reverse its position or it might lead the legislature to fix it by changing the law. But because coverage of this issue is limited by news media resources to one paper and one day, the ethics commission and the legislature may decide that keeping things as they are is just fine since the consequences are limited. The legislature is slow to make rules that challenge the freedom of its members and slower still when the news media fails to bring public pressure to bear.

The Courant story on the ethics commission ruling pointed out that two members voting to reject the staff opinion — that would have forced lawmakers to hire their own defense counsel — were former lawmakers themselves. This is the kind of transparency needed from the scrappy band of reporters still left on the job in this era of translucence.

Lawmaker Gigs

A good place to begin coverage of the conflicts of interest we live with everyday would be our part-time citizen legislature. It would be a great public service if every mention of a lawmaker in the day’s news coverage included a brief description of what they do for a living when they are not representing the public in Hartford. This simple disclosure would be illuminating and is as essential as the label Democrat or Republican.

Without citing specific examples; it would be helpful to know which members of the Judiciary Committee work for which law firms. It would be helpful to know which lawmakers have ties to lobbying firms. It would be helpful to know which lawmakers also happen to be employed by some of the state’s major employers or labor unions because we may find where they stand on the issues has a lot to do with how they feed their families.

With the pack of journalist watchdogs getting smaller, the need for citizen involvement grows; which means we need more basic facts to render our own judgments on the motives and conflicts of those we elect.

(hartfordbusiness.com)

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