Connecticut feels today like a fun house where small looks big and short looks tall, fat is slim and upside down is right side up. Where but a fun house could we see gems like a 4 percent spending increase in the state budget called a cut, the end of a $400 million tax break called "not a tax increase" and Connecticut residents losing 30,000 jobs called job creation?
But nowhere did the twisted logic of politics feel stranger than our experience introducing a "good government" bill during the just completed legislative session. Hatched during a late winter discussion, the bill would eliminate glaring conflicts of interest at our Capitol. It simply said that legislators and senior government officials can't be paid more than $1,000 a year by a public employee union, a lobbying firm or a large state contractor.
When first conceived, we doubted the bill would draw much interest. We also doubted it would pass this session, but we thought it would get a hearing. Over time, we believed it would gather a following.
Most people in state government are honest, intelligent and well-intentioned. But not all are. Connecticut has suffered many scandals. So, public officials in Connecticut are justifiably viewed by many with suspicion, even contempt. You would think a bill to turn that around would be well received.
Our first sign of trouble was when we couldn't get enough support to raise the bill for a public hearing through the normal process. We had to invoke a rarely used petition process to get the hearing.
Our reception at the hearing further opened our eyes. We were aggressively attacked for having the gall to come to the Capitol proposing higher ethical standards. Instead of acknowledging the problem and helping craft a solution, the political establishment in both parties mocked our effort and tried to shout us down.
The fun house cast us as the bad guys and the bill as "poorly drafted," "way too broad," "politically motivated" and "dead on arrival." The hostility was raw and widespread. This was the reaction to a bill whose goal was little different from saying, "Legislators and senior government officials will not lie, cheat or steal on the job." The bill wasn't even voted on in committee.
Sen. Markley, co-author of this piece, was able to offer the essence of the bill as an amendment to another bill on the closing day of session. The amendment was admirably supported by Sen. John McKinney, R-Fairfield, and earned the unanimous support of Republican state senators. But it was unanimously rejected by Senate Democrats, who dismissed it as "flawed."
Do we really live in a state where a legislator can flippantly vote against an unambitious ethics bill and not be afraid of adverse public reaction? Well, yes, and that brings us back to the fun house. When one party rules with a sympathetic press, politicians don't have to worry as much about what the voters think. They can act brazenly without threat of harm.
When the dialogue continues, opponents of the bill will have to explain what they mean by "flawed." Do they mean a legislator being paid a $100,000 a year or more by a state contractor won't be influenced by that relationship in his or her official duties? Do they mean citizens should just trust legislators' good judgment when so many have abused the public trust? Do they mean these conflicts do not exist? If not, this bill won't affect anyone, so why bother being against it?
The fun house can strain the idealism that first draws people to public service. Facing the practical challenges of that world — simply dealing with the process — can change people. The public nature of the job can lead to a sense of entitlement which clouds public servants' judgment. Knowing their fallibility, and witnessing some tragic examples of those who have strayed, we remain committed to more clearly delineating behavior that is acceptable from that which is not, for the sake of the public trust and for the good of the state.