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Foley diagnosis right, prescription wrong

Published April 02. 2013 4:00AM

Practically everybody in the General Assembly bristled the other day when Tom Foley, the Republican candidate for governor in 2010, showed up to support a bill he had written to diminish conflicts of interests among legislators. While legislators from Foley's own party got most indignant and Democrats at least delighted in that infighting, Foley had a good point if not a good remedy.

For the legislature is so full of conflict of interest that it is a miracle when the public interest prevails.

Foley's idea is to prohibit legislators and members of their immediate family from receiving $1,000 or more per year from state contractors and businesses that employ lobbyists. There are a few problems with this.

First, as legislators complained, such a standard could disqualify hundreds of thousands of people from legislative service. After all, state government is now so pervasive that it is almost impossible for someone not to have a close connection, directly or through family, to state contractors and businesses or associations that use lobbyists.

Second, if enacted, Foley's proposal likely would be unconstitutional, Connecticut's Constitution declaring plainly that every elector is eligible to every office in the state, except as restricted by the constitution itself. That is, conflict of interest is essentially for the electorate to determine.

And third, the form Connecticut uses for its legislature - the form of "citizen legislators" who are paid only part-time salaries (even though the work averages to full-time) - virtually guarantees conflict of interest. Unless legislators are as independently wealthy as Foley is, they can support themselves and their families only by working second jobs, and there's hardly a job in the state that isn't subject to government's heavy hand or riding its gravy train.

Shall public employees or people with close relatives employed by government be prohibited from serving in the legislature? Nearly all the income of public employees comes from government, and in voting on appropriations they are taking care of themselves as much as they are taking care of everyone else.

How about lawyers, who long have dominated the General Assembly? Their trade association does lobbying, but, far worse than that, lawyer-legislators have decisive power over the appointments of the judges before whom they earn their private livelihoods in court, thus gaining huge advantage over lawyers who are not legislators. This conflict of interest is infinitely more valuable to lawyer-legislators than a $1,000 fee but it would not be covered by Foley's proposal if the bar association didn't lobby or if lawyers withdrew from the bar association.

Insurance companies employ thousands of people, sell insurance to the government, are highly regulated, and use lobbyists, so should it be goodbye as well to every actuary, agent, and information technologist in the legislature and to every legislator related to one?

The greater the disqualification in the name of preventing conflict of interest, the less democracy.

Still, Foley is devastatingly right in general. Politics always will be as Ambrose Bierce defined it, "a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles," and legislators should stop pretending otherwise. Indeed, when Foley testified that "the foxes are running the henhouse," the indignation of state Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, was comic.

"The Capitol is not a henhouse and I am not a hen," Rebimbas replied, though she leads the opposition to repealing the minimum-pricing law for liquor even as her aunt and uncle run a minimum price-dependent "mom and pop" liquor store in her hometown.

No hen's feathers had ever been more appropriately ruffled.

There probably are no solutions here, just ameliorations, like full-time salaries for legislators, a more vigorous Capitol press corps, and - might as well dream on - a more attentive and civic-minded public.

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