New Year Finally Brings Dramatic Change To Financing of Campaigns

A system of public financing of political campaigns will bring dramatic change to many state House and Senate races in 2008. While the full impact will not be felt until 2010 when races for Governor and statewide offices will occur, the law’s intent is to begin to restrict the corrosive influence of money in politics that reached its nadir during the Rowland years.

Without John Rowland’s violations of the public trust coming to light, the land of steady habits might still be stuck with a government increasingly influenced by excessive political money and corporate-funded special interests.

It is worth noting (with no small amount of irony) that in 2000 Connecticut’s Democratic-controlled General Assembly approved a Clean Elections law modeled after Maine’s law that was adopted by referendum in 1996. Governor Rowland, unbowed by the imprisonment of his State Treasurer, Paul Silvester, for graft in the handling of state pension funds, vetoed a Connecticut clean election law. Had it been adopted the reform might have spared Rowland himself from jail time.

“It is an exciting time for democracy in Connecticut,” says State Rep. Tim O’Brien (D-24) who served on the GAE Committee that helped craft legislation designed to diminish the influence of lobbyist money and that includes an outright contribution ban on contractors who do business with the state.

“For generations, we have dreamed of an open election system in which people’s voices matter more than special interest money. Now, it is a reality,” declares O’Brien in launching his 2008 campaign for the state House that will rely on grassroots contributions. To voluntarily opt in to the “Citizen’s Election Program” state House candidates will be required to obtain individual contributions in their communities. A state representative must obtain 150 donations in his or her community; a state senator must obtain 300 donations, most of which will be small-scale contributions of no more than $100. Candidates who opt not to participate will be required to file and disclose campaign finance information.

The state Elections Enforcement Commission, which is administering the Citizen’s Election Program, has set forth basic goals:
(1) to allow candidates to compete without reliance on special interest money; (2) to curtail excessive spending and create a more level playing field among candidates; (3) to give candidates without access to sources of wealth a meaningful opportunity to seek elective office, and;(4) to provide the public with meaningful and timely disclosure of campaign finances.

Connecticut’s Citizens’ Election program, adopted in the wake of the Rowland scandals, is modeled after Maine’s Clean Elections law. The Maine law now involves 80% of legislative candidates from all political persuasions. It has won praise for reducing excessive spending and, according to a recent study by the Maine ethics commission, allowed candidates to devote more time talking issues and getting feedback from voters.

The high stakes test for Connecticut’s citizen-funded election program won’t come until gubernatorial and statewide races in 2010. There may also be a need to adjust the law to empower Town Committees and encourage grassroots financing in the new system. And no one should assume that the Clean Elections Program is all that will be needed to enforce strong ethics in government. What is clear, however, is that Connecticut lawmakers, pushed by reformers such as Rep. O’Brien, had to strike a blow against corruption in the wake of John Rowland’s exit and indiscretions.

Opponents of public financing had always used the argument that taxpayer money should not finance political campaigns. But that argument finally fell to the side when the question was asked: how much more will taxpayers pay for abuses of the public trust made possible by campaigns funded entirely by private interests?

“This is an important moment in history, and I would like to ask you to be a part of reclaiming our democracy,” says Rep. O’Brien in making his campaign part of a citizen-based election system.

In the long term, proponents of the law such as O’Brien and New Britain’s Democratic lawmakers view the new campaign system as a catalyst to enacting major reforms. Progress on key consumer issues such as a more equitable tax system, universal health care and controlling energy and utility costs have long been thwarted by powerful corporate lobbyists whose influence have now been diminished in the 2008 election cycle.

Thanks John Rowland. We could not have done it without you.

Downtown’s Future: A Place To Live Within Walking Distance of Public Transit

Downtown New Britain is no longer a “downtown,” if that word means anything. But if it’s no longer the city’s commercial or business center, then what is it?

from NBBlogs

The revitalization of downtown New Britain was not much of an issue during the 2007 municipal campaign. The welcome news of Carvel Corporation’s move to the long vacant Smart Park (the former Stanley Works factory parcel)and a meaningless flare up over the location of a new police station were about the only headlines drawing attention to the city’s vital center this year.

Downtown is ripe for new investment and development that needs to be managed wisely by city and state officials over the next five years. One of the big challenges of putting a viable downtown New Britain back together has to do with Route 9, the highway that connects I-84 to I-91 and shore points. New Britain is not unique among U.S. cities in having a four-lane roadway built 40 or 50 years ago that hastened decline of the central business district. The major task now is to undo that public works and public policy fiasco that cut the city in two.

As Pat Thibodeau observes in a recent post on his blog about New Britain, there’s no bringing back a downtown full of big retailers and big stores that people pouring out of factories patronized in the middle of the 20th century.

Thibodeau sees the opening of C-Town — an urban grocer that people walk to — as a harbinger of downtown’s future. “Downtown New Britain isn’t so much the place to be (the old city slogan), as it is a place to live. It has the potential to become an interesting and lively neighborhood,” he says. He goes on:

Downtown housing is likely to be occupied by single adults or couples who want to be in walking distance to essential services and stores. I also believe that, more and more, people will be interested in living without having to own a car, even in Connecticut. (I just paid about $25 for 8 gallons of gas at the Sunoco near West Farms. What happens when gas hits $4 a gallon?)

Thibodeau’s analysis needs to be heeded as key pieces of real estate (the old police station, the Herald building and the New-Brite shopping plaza) enter the development picture in the immediate or near future. Above all, officials at the local level need to be ready to take full advantage of the New Britain-to-Hartford busway that will turn the old Greenfield’s property into a transit hub and instantly make the land and buildings around it more attractive for private investment. These investments will have little need (nor should they) for abatements and public subsidies for business that desperate cities often use to boost their grand lists. Like third world countries fighting poverty, distressed U.S. cities are engaged in a “race to the bottom” because of the property tax.

Last July experts, lawyers and developers were at New Britain City Hall to outline some exciting plans for a downtown in dire need of good ideas and new public/private investment. Careful listeners to a study prepared by Harrall-Michalowski Associates wouldn’t be wrong in thinking they may have already heard much of what is being proposed. To paraphrase Yogi Berra: “It was deja vu all over again.”

If you flashback two years to the 2005 campaign, Jason Jakubowski, the Democratic mayoral nominee, unveiled a plan called “Project Hope” that represented a comprehensive and very ambitious agenda to bring downtown back. Jakubowski, reviving some older proposals dating back to the DeFronzo administration and raising the new ones, defined “hope” for downtown with a nine-point plan that included a new police station and the conversion of New-Brite into a collegiate sports and conference center multi-plex. He urged an expanded role for Central CT State and Charter Oak State downtown and proposed an arts and entertainment district built around the city’s existing assets. To correct the highway mistake of the 70’s, a mini platform idea was floated again to bridge the divide between East Main Street and Columbus Boulevard.

Jakubowski’s “Project Hope” and the master plan to come from consultants hired by the city this year are based on the same essential component: the federally funded busway planned to run aside the railroad tracks from New Britain through Newington and onto downtown Hartford.

While the busway is still five years away at best, the city and state — working together — could begin to put into place elements of a plan that will make downtown “interesting and lively” for visitors and residents who are ready to consider the center of the city a place to live if convenient public transit exists.

An interim step that could happen within a year is to upgrade the existing downtown bus stop. “One thing New Britain should try to get the state to do is improve the downtown bus hub,” states Thibodeau. “The bus pick-up location at West Main and Main Streets is dismal and unattractive. It actually looks dangerous. It needs an extreme makeover to encourage new riders.” A cosmetic makeover next to the municipal garage would invite greater use of public transit before the busway arrives.

And what would be wrong with a commuter bus direct from downtown New Britain into Hartford? There is a commuter Express near Corbin’s Corner with limited services now. It should be expanded to downtown given the thousands of New Britain residents — not to mention people from adjoining towns — who trek into downtown Hartford to work every day. More local service — a university downtown shuttle and a route up to the West Main Street business area — would get people to work and shop without using a car at $3.30 a gallon.

It’s time to implement a transit-based economic development strategy now and not wait for the first ride on the busway some of us plan to take circa 2012.