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Chris Powell

Evading Vote on Sheff Case, Legislature Fails Democracy

Renovating the state’s child-protection agency isn’t the only issue Connecticut has just taken 32 years to resolve in court. The same amount of time has just elapsed with the resolution of the Sheff v. O’Neill lawsuit over de-facto racial segregation in Hartford’s schools.

The child-protection case plodded along in federal court while the school case moved glacially in Connecticut’s own courts. The cases raised important issues, even if they failed to address the big underlying problems, and they settled some big state government policies. But they did so without much involvement of the General Assembly and thus without much ordinary democracy.

With the child-protection case, eventually governors and the legislature decided to appropriate more and more for the Department of Children and Families until increases in its social worker staff outran increases in neglected and fatherless children. But the legislature never undertook any inquiry into the causes of childbearing outside marriage, despite its overwhelming correlation with poverty.

The settlement of the Hartford school segregation case requires state government to appropriate tens of millions of dollars in the years ahead to build more regional schools and operate more school choice programs until all the Hartford students so desiring can get out of their largely segregated and poorly performing neighborhood schools. But this month both houses of the General Assembly decided not to vote on the settlement, letting it take effect by default.

Legislative votes on the settlement were denied even though some Black legislators wanted to question its shortcomings and the Senate chair of the Appropriations Committee, Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, wanted its financial commitments to come before her committee for review.

In comments to the Hartford Courant, House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, even implied that subverting democracy was necessary if the Sheff case was to be settled at all. “If you involve us and the Senate leadership,” Ritter said, “before you know it, that’s a bill, not a legal settlement.”

But a bill is democracy, lawmaking by the people’s elected representatives. A court settlement is lawmaking by the unelected — and an argument for electing judges.

Maybe such disdain for democracy is to be expected from a legislature that for two years until recently forfeited its authority to the governor in the name of an “emergency” that long outlasted the definition of the word.

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ABUSIVE ZONING: Surely South Windsor’s Planning and Zoning Commission has heard the clamor over exploding prices for food, gasoline, and housing. For various reasons there are now shortages of all three necessities.

So this month the commission did what might be done by any zoning commission in an exclusive suburb. The commission voted 4-3 to impose a one-year moratorium on most new housing in town — single-family housing subdivisions of more than two lots and duplex and multi-family housing.

Several housing developments in town that already have been approved won’t be impeded, but the town has room for much more housing than that. Additionally, the commission’s rationale for the moratorium is the tired excuse often used to defend exclusivity: to provide time for a general review of zoning regulations. The commission will pretend that it can’t review the regulations without a freeze on housing.

This sort of obstructionism is exactly what is fueling proposals in the General Assembly to strip discretion from suburban zoning commissions.

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LEAVE RABBITS ALONE: Animal lovers are upset that the state Agriculture Department is proposing legislation to facilitate the mass farming and slaughtering of rabbits for meat. It may be hard to oppose the legislation on principle, since Connecticut already has many slaughterhouses and meatpackers. After all, is it any more objectionable to raise, kill, and eat rabbits than cattle, pigs, chickens, and fish?

But in the name of humane treatment of animals it also may be fair to ask whether Connecticut really needs more animal slaughter and meat. Rabbit meat is already available from out of state. But because of Russia’s war against Ukraine, wheat and corn may be in desperately short supply for years. Agriculture in Connecticut would do much better to try to seize that opportunity and leave the rabbits alone.

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Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.

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