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CTnow

COLUMN

Insider Dealing Serves Special Interests

Kevin Rennie

NOW YOU KNOW

7:10 PM EST, January 4, 2013

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Tim O'Brien, a Democrat serving his first term as mayor of New Britain, makes the case that state assistance to municipalities may be more generous than it needs to be as an age of austerity dawns. O'Brien did not intend to become a leading urban voice for cutting aid but he's provided a vivid example of why the public often believes more can be chopped from government spending.

O'Brien and some local landlords have been sniping and fighting for months over proposals by the mayor to impose new fees on property owners. Landlords are especially vexed by an O'Brien plan to charge for certain types of calls to city emergency service providers.

Sounding like a puffed-up dictator in an early Woody Allen film, O'Brien declared that some landlords, "have launched a dangerous attack on the city of New Britain and its anti-blight ordinance." Uh-oh. Gather the air raid wardens. Put up blackout curtains. There's an outbreak of dissent in New Britain.

O'Brien feels beleaguered. He must lack confidence in his ability and that of the large municipal staff to persuade the people of New Britain of the merits of the programs. The mayor found $100,000 in a legal services budget to hire Democratic public relations firm Global Strategies Group to combat the landlords, who'd hired a former local television reporter.

The resources and authority of the city exceed those of the landlords, but it is never enough when opposition breaks out in what's become a one-party town. O'Brien must have known he'd stumbled when a couple of fellow Democrats on the city council told The Courant they would have opposed the unappealing contract if they'd been given a chance to vote on it.

The next several months of budget-making in Hartford will include starring roles for municipal leaders claiming that not only should not one nickel be cut from state aid to their towns, but they need more. O'Brien's partisan, sweetheart deal with Global Strategies confirms what the rest of us suspect. There's a lot of money stuffed into shadowy accounts to spend on expenses that no reasonable person would call essential.

When those municipal leaders start singing the budget blues, someone ought to ask them to define essential services. How many deputy superintendents, chiefs of staff or town managers are there in the moaning leader's town? The answer is rarely zero. Perhaps the municipal fleet could be trimmed. Does the mayor of any Connecticut municipality really need a driver?

Collecting money, not saving it, occupies our legislators at this time of year. Many are in shakedown mode to squeeze what they can out of people with interests before them in the legislative session that begins Wednesday morning. It's not enough that taxpayers provide millions to fund their political campaigns. They want more.

This is the season of the political action committee speed reception. Make sure you bring a lot of checks. They'll be watching.

Special interests were supposed to be banished from the political fundraising bazaar once the public started carrying the campaign funding load. Even the most ardent advocate of the public picking up campaign tabs cannot resist the chance to sell some access and goodwill at this time of year.

Invitations have been landing in lobbyist and other email in-boxes with menacing frequency. The new speaker and majority leader will gather for a "pre-session reception" in Hartford Tuesday night. Other political action committees can give the speaker's and majority leader's DEMpacs $2,000 each to join in the festivities. Lobbyists can give $100; their friends, who are not lobbyists, can pony up $1,000 each.

Last Thursday, "your Progressive Connecticut Friends" sought contributions of up to $2,500 each under the auspices of four PACs acting together. It makes one wonder about the sincerity of the left when a champion of public financing such as state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, is the first bold name on the unsavory invitation.

We know these events have nothing to do with good government. They are not policy seminars. They serve only one purpose on the eve of a legislative session. People with distinct interests are putting a down payment on access and assistance for the next five months. Their interests, not yours.

Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He can be reached at kfrennie@yahoo.com.