Chris Powell: Let suburbanites vote in cities

With Connecticut’s state tax revenue declining, those who consider themselves big thinkers have been advocating more regionalism, as if having towns share a dog warden will save them much as long as their municipal employee union contracts remain subject to binding arbitration and thus exempt from serious economies. In fact,  advocacy of regionalism long has been just a cowardly evasion of Connecticut's most expensive policy failures.

In any case try to find someone who will argue for more regionalism in the context of recent developments in Hartford. The city is beyond insolvent, with the new mayor, Luke Bronin, having to slash its budget and seek concessions from the city employee unions. Meanwhile the minor-league baseball stadium the city last year decided to build is now not only 20 percent over budget but also months late in completion. The entire home season of the baseball team seems likely to be lost.

Of course, few observers are surprised by this, competence not being expected from city government. Asked last week about the troubles of the Hartford stadium, even Gov. Dan Malloy remarked that he had not been enthusiastic about it. But the governor could have killed it with a word before it got started. He could have declared that if Hartford, while its school system and police protection were collapsing, really thought that it could afford $50 million to build a minor-league baseball stadium, the state administration, which covers half the city's budget, would reduce financial assistance to the city by whatever amount the city appropriated for the stadium.

Instead the governor, a Democrat, was silent, reluctant to alienate the city's Democratic organization, and now Hartford is out at least $60 million, and instead of a stadium and minor-league baseball the city more likely can look forward to years of expensive litigation with the developer.

Meanwhile The Hartford Courant disclosed last week that even as the city's school administration was closing schools and eliminating services to economize, it was also paying $61,000 for having sent 33 school employees to a conference in Miami, where the school system got an award, which might as well have been for obliviousness.

Such scandals are typical of Connecticut's cities and they happen because the cities long ago lost their independent, self-sufficient, politically engaged middle class employed in the private sector, becoming dominated instead by the government and welfare classes, dominated by takers rather than producers.

As a result people who are self-sufficient or aspire to self-sufficiency and aspire to get their children away from the pathology of government-created poverty relocate to the suburbs, where people who pay more in taxes than they receive in income drawn from taxes want nothing to do with regionalism, insofar as regionalism means fluff like overpriced stadiums and Florida junkets.

Though this situation offers suburbanites an escape, it is hideous all the same, since it lets Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, and Connecticut's smaller cities remain corrupt and exploited dependencies, free of political pressure or incentive to change.

So the regionalism that Connecticut needs should recognize that the state pays too much for its cities for them to function mainly as generators of poverty and patronage. The regionalism that Connecticut needs should enfranchise suburban residents to vote in city government elections and referendums, since suburban residents are already paying half of city government expense.

Connecticut's cities do not have a big enough private sector to bring city government under control, to make it pursue the public interest. But if city elections were actually regional elections, city officials might behave more responsibly -- might not even think of spending money on stadiums and trips to Florida.

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