John Breunig: A new game board in Connecticut

By John Breunig

Tracks on the rail line worn from daily use. Roads overdue for repairs. Buildings showing fatigue.

I can’t help but think of the condition of Connecticut when I assess my 6-year-old’s playroom every dawn. There’s just not enough coin in the transportation fund and general budget for appropriate upgrades.

And yet, I still have the sense most people in Connecticut don’t quite get it. Gov. Dan Malloy would probably lose a race these days against John Rowland, the exiled Grand Poobah of Corrupticut. But even before he packed for Hartford, Malloy was already barking that the pension liability ignored for generations was putting our state in a crater of debt.

After lawmakers took 123 extra days last year to come up with a state budget, they tasked a 14-member commission with the “Mission Impossible” assignment of navigating Connecticut out of the hole.

I’m not usually a fan of parallel-universe commissions that try to solve the shortcomings of government. Maybe I’ve just heard too much hubris from volunteer groups of corporate executives who think they know better than eductors. It has the feeling of baseball fans who screech about a manager’s calls when they couldn’t bunt a Major League curveball with a redwood.

But the 14 members of the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth have already done something the General Assembly failed to: They met a deadline. The group, who are mostly business leaders, produced a thoughtful, balanced, provocative 119-page report in 76 days (no OT needed). It would be unfair to shorthand the report into Tweet-speak, but we’ll look at it in detail on these pages in the weeks to come.

The report quickly won huzzahs from the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, despite recommendations that would reduce state aid to towns. It is unlikely to receive similar support from unions, which are already crying foul about concepts such as introducing neutral arbitrators for municipal negotiations.

The panel’s approach to the recommendations is reminiscent of the strategy to another toy: Like Jenga, take out the wrong pieces and it collapses. That’s asking a lot of 187 lawmakers who endure traffic jams just so they can yank on strands of legislation.

During an editorial board Thursday, commission members chanted sound bites as though rehearsing their pitch to lawmakers.

“The platform is burning. The platform is on fire,” said co-Chair Jim Smith, former CEO of WebsterBank. “... We were able to take a holistic set of recommendations, which taken as a whole will change the course of Connecticut’s future.”

Yelling “fire” to the General Assembly never worked for Malloy, but members of the commission are optimistic because they were, after all, endorsed by the governor and Legislature.

To prevent fragmentation, commission members are trying to change the rules of the game. Rather than meet separately before committees, they hope the four key panels will take the unprecedented step of hearing them at the same time.

“That way we avoid everyone taking things to their own corners,” reasons commission member Cindi Bigelow, president and CEO of the eponymous tea company.

The members of the commission joke that they went out of business when they delivered the report March 1, and are “just here as private citizens.”

The work, and its intention, clearly means a lot to them. While General Assembly “colleagues” hurl caustic barbs across the aisle, Bigelow sits to the side like a morning talk show host championing the work of her collaborators.

“This couldn’t have worked if a few of us weren’t retired,” said Bob Patricelli, who founded Women’s Health USA and rallied peers to get engaged in helping the state, an initiative which led to the formation of the commission.

Patricelli’s observation underscores the challenges our part-time, underpaid — and yes, underappreciated — elected officials face in Hartford. Bigelow is right when she says, “Connecticut is wounded and the other states know it.” Healing is not a part-time gig.

The commission report recommends the appointment of a public-private commission to enhance the legislative process because “a poorly paid and part-time legislature may not be adequate to meet the state’s needs, and ... compensation and session length changes may be appropriate.”

Like other suggestions in the report, it’s a bold idea. But something’s got to change. First up is convincing those 862 candidates for governor that they won’t really squelch this conflagration in a few months.

Back in my basement, navigating my son’s playroom, I keep stepping on people. The Legos can take it. The people of Connecticut are weary of being underfoot.