In The End, A Disappointing Session At The Capitol

Republican state Rep. Pam Sawyer receives legislation from messenger Joshua Esses as the General Assembly worked into the evening Wednesday on the last day of the session. (Mark Mirko | Hartford Courant)

It started on a somber high note, as an elegy to those lost in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

The General Assembly's competent bipartisan work in the first half of its 2013 session to craft tough but appropriate gun control and school safety legislation in response to the Newtown shootings gave political leadership a good name for a change.

As did Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's sensitive and heartachingly difficult handling of the tragedy as the leader at the scene, to whom it fell to tell parents their children were dead.

During those first weeks post-Newtown, Connecticut's lawmakers and governor captured the nation's attention and respect — and deserved them.

The session had the promise of greatness. Over time, however, it unraveled.

A big part of the problem is the growing penchant of the state's elected leaders to pull down government's shades so the bill-paying public can't see inside. These leaders have fallen in love with secrecy and out of love with what used to be a cherished Connecticut value, transparency.

Lawmakers and the governor even met in secret this session — contradicting established how-a-bill-becomes-law process — to write legislation allowing more of government to frolic behind closed doors.

War On Open Government

Mr. Malloy began the war on openness two years ago by downsizing the so-called watchdog agencies, which include the state Freedom of Information Commission, and putting them under a gubernatorial appointee.

The increased number of attempts this session to close government to the public, as well as the number of bills negotiated in secret and given no public hearing, are worrisome.

The legislature capped this session by passing another Newtown-related bill Wednesday. It will block public disclosure of photos of homicide victims and some other records. Much of the public might applaud its passage out of sympathy for Newtown's dead.

But we agree with Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, one of only two senators to vote against the bill. There's a bigger issue, he said. The suppression of information related to horrific crimes committed on public property and recorded by public officials is not consistent with a free and open society.

"The more we understand about our ugliness, the better chance we have to overcome that ugliness," Mr. Meyer said. "Suppression of horrific conduct, as this bill dictates, invites history to repeat itself."

Backsliding On Election Reforms

Another disappointment was the majority Democrats' failure to learn a useful lesson from the illegal money-grubbing that sank former state House Speaker Chris Donovan's campaign for the congressional seat in the 5th District.

The Democrats in the General Assembly rammed through a bill that will greatly expand the amount of private money that will find its way into campaigns for state and local office.

With the money, of course, come the favor-seekers, like those who sought Mr. Donovan's intervention on their behalf in a tax matter.

Connecticut's once-vaunted campaign finance reforms took a backward step in this session.

And the budget-making process was a big disappointment.

In fairness, we like the priorities of Mr. Malloy and the Democrats: increasing funds for education reform — which will do more to build Connecticut's future than anything else government can do — as well as holding municipal aid basically even, supporting the social safety net, bolstering job-creating programs, fully funding the state pension program. In this respect, it is a budget with a conscience.

But it, too, depends on gimmicks to appear balanced — just like the budgets of his predecessors that Mr. Malloy is always panning.

The budget uses way too many one-shot revenue sources, creating problems in the following biennium. It raises "new" taxes, despite the governor's denials. It takes $6 billion off-budget in a breathtaking move that might draw judicial scrutiny. It relies more heavily than it should on an unstable revenue source — gaming. It again delays the full implementation of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.

How much more lipstick can Mr. Malloy and the Democrats put on this pig?