Two Major Moves Salvage Lackluster Legislative Session
May 11, 2008
The legislative session just ended had a listless, meandering feel to it; a budget written but never enacted; a speaker waving an unexpected and inconvenient farewell; a governor shrugging off a traditional valedictory address.
Despite the general miasma, historic bills were enacted dealing with two crises: global warming and spiraling health care costs. Let's consider this good news first:
The global warming bill requires the state to inventory the problem and any available solutions and gives it power to curb consumption in areas ranging from transportation to home appliances to building design. The goal is to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by mid-century.
We're the last country still debating global warming. Right-wing talk radio spoon-feeds propaganda to fanatics, from whom it then leaches into the general population. That and Big Oil have Congress paralyzed. With this bill Connecticut moves past that, or so we hope.
Some say it's too big a job for states. But by acting, California, New Jersey and now Connecticut force the hand of the federal government. Others worry we won't follow through. Maybe not, but this bill has teeth. And the public has finally grasped that without fuel efficiency, clean energy and conservation there'll be no price relief at the pump or anywhere.
A second historic bill passed the Senate on the next to last day: House Majority Leader Chris Donovan's bill to allow municipalities, nonprofits and small businesses into the state employee health care plan.
Government spends a fortune on health care for the old, the young and the poor. Here for the first time a state may lend a hand to the broad middle class — the self-employed and small businesses that pay the highest prices, often for inferior coverage. The program is state-sponsored but privately run and purely voluntary.
All my life I've heard both parties proclaim their love for small business. The words ring hollow. Taxes get cut, but not for small business; the tax that falls heaviest on them is in fact the one rising the fastest, the property tax. Governors pledge to make government more responsive to small businesses, but it turns out to be only in exchange for big contributions.
This bill would deliver big savings to small business. Who's fighting it tooth and nail? Insurance carriers and the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, which happens to sell health insurance to small businesses. Just as junk science permeates the debate on global warming, they inject junk data into the health care debate.
Anthem and Health Net threaten to seek a rate hike if the bill passes. A third insurer, United Health Group, will stick it out a year. To raise rates, Anthem and Health Net have to prove new members of the pool aren't as healthy as state employees. No known data supports their claim. The only public data indicates the opposite.
No one ever got sick and drove to an insurance company. They, and the CBIA, are middle men who add little value while bleeding a dying system dry. They lobby ferociously not to save our tax dollars but to protect their profit margins.
If the two rogue vendors actually pull this stunt, their business should go to United Health Group just for playing it straight. The governor also needs to play it straight. She says her Office of Policy and Management has found data to suggest the bill could actually cost the state money. She should tell us what it is and where they found it.
Two years ago, M. Jodi Rell was a driving force to clean up campaign finances. Last year, Democrats and restive Republicans backed her off an eye-popping education bill. A health care plan simply vanished. This year, she almost vetoed her own crime bill. Her big bipartisan moment was not adopting a budget. If health care reform dies, it will be at her hand. See a pattern?
Ella Grasso, Bill O'Neill and Lowell Weicker ran full-court presses on legislators from opening day to session's end. Not Rell. To move a bill, legislators must fill that void.
The wonderful Rep. Pat Widlitz, with Sen. Ed Meyer and Rep. Dick Roy, moved global warming. Aid for subprime mortgage holders flew on the backs of Rep. Ryan Barry and Bob Duff, a thoughtful Norwalk senator. The health care bill is all Donovan's.
O'Neill surrounded himself with loyal political operatives, but he also attracted talented public policy types; people like UConn's Lori Aronson and Deputy Treasurer Howard Rifkin.
Rell has a fiercely loyal operative in Lisa Moody, but no one like Aronson or Rifkin. You can't run a government without them. In a tougher economy, Rell will have to govern, not just politic; policy weakness then would be politically fatal.
So the legislature proposes and disposes; one branch doing the work of two. It isn't supposed to work that way and it won't much longer. On Wednesday night, Rell not only scrubbed her speech but ducked out six hours before the session ended. Her absence was barely noticed.
Bill Curry, former counselor to President Bill Clinton, was the Democratic nominee for governor twice. His column appears Sundays on the Other Opinion page. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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