Competence and Courage Needed in the Legislature

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To the Editor:

Who is the public’s advocate in Hartford? 

In 2019 and 2020 $96,845,533.44 was spent on lobbying in Connecticut alone. Of that $71,413,635.32 was spent on lobbying the 187 members of the Connecticut legislature. 

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That’s $381,891.09 (rounding down) spent per legislator during one term of office. During that time period the same legislator earned $28,000 per year or $56,000 total. Lobbyists spent more than 7 times what the public paid our representatives to influence them. 

The job of a lobbyist is to persuade, as best as possible, each legislator that a certain policy proposal is in the legislator’s interests politically and is for the overall good. Lobbyists are very good at their jobs. They often have language ready to include in a bill, vetted and polished.

Imagine if at your job someone walked in and said, “Here you go, here’s that report you were supposed to do; it makes my friend look real good, but otherwise meets all your requirements.” If it  was common practice and there was no risk to your reputation there would be no reason not to use the report. 

That’s how our legal system works. Interested parties do the work of writing laws and then spend vast resources to pass it through our elected representatives, as if it were the will of the people.  

What’s the harm you ask?

“All things are legal unless they’re not” may be an obvious sentiment. However, recently passed laws demonstrate a trend towards making actions legal. We must ask ourselves why make an action legal? For some reason, resourceful groups have found it necessary, and in their interest, to make particular actions explicitly legal

Companies have expended millions of dollars and years of employee time in pursuit of creating and drafting and passing these laws. What do they get in exchange for all this money and effort? What they get is a kind of cover. By pointing to a law, one can justify otherwise morally ambiguous behavior, pass off responsibility to the government, and act as if they had nothing to do with it in the first place.

The marijuana legislation provides a clear example. Several industries wanted explicit protection to hire and fire people based on the use of a now legal substance. I’ll leave the merits of the legality or morality of the use of cannabis for another discussion, but the point is this — many interested parties paid lobbyists to get legislators to carve out large exceptions for themselves to handle employment decisions explicitly for the off-work use of marijuana. 

I encourage you to read section 98(d)(1) of Public Act 21-1 – the marijuana legalization law – and review the extensive list of exempted employers. The list covers nearly every stable job worth having in Connecticut. That is no accident.   These employers spent good money to influence overworked and underprepared legislators to carve out exceptions just for themselves. They want to be able to fire people who use marijuana on their own time. 

In sequence:

  • First, we have a long cultural battle against the discretionary and costly enforcement of drug possession laws which created a mandate for our representatives to legalize.
  • Second, policymakers and legislators signal that legalization is on the agenda.
  • Third, interested groups hire lobbyists to ensure their interests are protected.
  • Fourth, lobbyists present an argument to legislators that large employers with big money are concerned they can’t fire people and that not being able to fire them would hurt those employers. Lobbyists hand over language that makes the law favorable to the employers they represent.
  • Fifth, a bill that is 300+ pages is written that legislators haven’t been given the time to actually read and gets passed because the headline is good, but the real change that the people wanted is still missing. 

The public wanted marijuana to be legal to reduce the disparate impact that discretionary enforcement had on minority communities and cited its relatively low danger to people especially compared to other substances, like alcohol, which are readily available and legal. Instead, we got a convoluted mess of legislation that includes the word “equity” but is not equitable at all. The power of lobbyists hides behind feel good spin, and no one is held responsible. 

This trend of using the law as a shield should frighten all of us who can’t afford the same protections. For millennia we used the law to define actions that were clearly inappropriate in a civilized society. We now see interested parties creating and inserting language in the law explicitly permitting certain actions so they can use those legal permissions as shield, defending actions you and I would rightfully call wrong.

Laws are for people and should be by the people. We need to change how the public is protected by the legal system and we need to send competent legislators to do the work. 

Jake Dunigan

Dunigan is running as an unaffiliated candidate for state Representative in District 41, which encompasses parts of Groton and Stonington.