Chris Powell: Insurers may be joining the state in enabling Hartford's bad habits

Hartford from the other side of the Connecticut River.

Hartford from the other side of the Connecticut River.

Hartford's three biggest insurance companies -- Aetna, The Hartford, and Travelers -- are being hailed as the city's saviors for their pledge last week to donate $50 million, $10 million per year for five years, to help city government out of its financial disaster.

But rather than saviors, the companies more likely have just become the city's new enablers, joining state government in that counterproductive work. The companies say their gift will be "conditioned" on making it "part of a comprehensive and sustainable solution for Hartford -- a solution that allows the city to stabilize its finances and support quality services."

But such a solution is nowhere in sight. Mayor Luke Bronin has been trying to negotiate concessions from the city's government employee unions but he hasn't yet gotten nearly enough to close a projected city budget deficit approaching $50 million. The mayor also has been touring Hartford's suburbs in pursuit of financial contributions but has not yet come back with a check, a pledge, or more than sympathy for the thankless job he has been stuck with. And while Governor Malloy has proposed to slash state financial aid to suburbs and rural towns and transfer it to Hartford and other cities, his proposal's prospects in the General Assembly are not strong, since many legislators know how incompetent and corrupt city governments have been, even if the legislators don't recognize state government's shared responsibility for this.

With perfect irony the $50 million gift from the insurers happens to match the original estimate of the cost of the minor-league baseball stadium city government just built and botched, a cost now believed to approach $75 million not counting litigation expenses. Indeed, even as the insurers announced their gift, the stadium contractor fired by the city announced that it is suing the city for $90 million,

A few days earlier the state child advocate's office revealed that the city's school system long has failed to act against school employees who harassed and molested students. A "comprehensive and sustainable solution" for that problem is not yet in place either. So with their huge gift the insurers may have only 1) rescued city government from some of the expense of its irresponsible decision to build the stadium as bankruptcy approached, 2) reduced the pressure on the city employee unions to make the concessions the mayor wants, and 3) reduced the pressure on state government to stop subsidizing the anti-social behavior that is worst in the cities and has turned them into poverty factories.

As Aetna, The Hartford, and Travelers are big companies doing business throughout the nation, they might concur in the advertising slogan lately being used by another big insurer, Farmers: "We know a thing or two because we've seen a thing or two." Surely the insurers should know that in Connecticut, as elsewhere, when supposedly liberal government gets down to its last dollars, it will kick the innocent needy out of their hospital beds, open the doors of the prisons, and stop plowing the roads after snowstorms so what's left of the money can be paid as raises and pensions to government's own employees.

Saving Connecticut and Hartford requires overthrowing this mindset, and as major employers and taxpayers that are exceptionally able to relocate, the insurers have great leverage over both state and municipal policy. Having just bestowed something for nothing on the city, and, really, state government, the insurers have squandered their leverage. Instead of showering millions on incompetence, they should have threatened to move if state and city government don't quickly start pursuing the public interest instead of the usual special interests.

Chris Powell, a frequent contributor, is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.