Lamont Revives Hockey Myth; And is More Cash Overlooked?

Chris Powell


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While residents of Hartford’s North End kept complaining about the longstanding sewage overflows in their neighborhood and four women were struck by a hit-and-run driver nearby, Governor Lamont discovered what the city really needs: the return of a big-league hockey team like the long-lost Whalers.

So the governor said he planned to get in touch with the commissioner of the National Hockey League about relocating the Arizona Coyotes to Hartford, since voters in the team’s hometown, Tempe, had just defeated a proposal to create an entertainment district in which an arena might have been built for the team.

“This is a great hockey state,” the governor said, and Hartford is “a great hockey town. It’s evidenced by the passion we have for the Whalers going back years, still one of the best-selling jerseys. I think we can guarantee them a very strong market right here, and a government that’s ready to be their partner.”

Oh, please, Governor. That’s not how it was at all.

The Whalers left Hartford for North Carolina in 1997 precisely because Connecticut is not “a great hockey state” and Hartford is not “a great hockey town.” The Whalers couldn’t make money here but state government still managed to lose a lot on them.

Indeed, in 1996, as the Whalers demanded that state government build a new arena for them even as they couldn’t fill the arena at the Hartford Civic Center, the Journal Inquirer calculated that between financial bailouts, discounted and unpaid state loans, and free use of the arena, state government was subsidizing the team by $32 per ticket sold, or $1,400 per spectator per season.

Despite these subsidies, Whalers attendance was nearly the lowest in the league, and a Whalers game was always a little like the joke about Grateful Dead concerts: the same few thousand people all the time.

Most of Connecticut was indifferent, saving its local sports enthusiasm for University of Connecticut basketball.

Since there long has been talk of having state government spend hundreds of millions of dollars to renovate the civic center, the governor and others may figure that state government should buy a hockey team to go with the project and try to fill downtown Hartford with suburbanites more often, though they’ll all just leave the city when the game is over. Hockey won’t get them and their families to live in the city. Better schools, lower taxes, and less crime might, but that’s not going to happen.

Hockey? Been there, done that, and all we have left is the lousy jersey.

* * *

When, the other day, state Treasurer Erick Russell found $381 million that could be used by state government to break the stalemate between Governor Lamont and the Democratic majority in the General Assembly over financing the “baby bonds” program, it was presented as a triumph. But was it?

It might be considered a triumph insofar as the found money will allow the program to get started without having state government borrow $600 million as originally planned, to which the governor objected. Using cash will cut $200 million off the program’s cost.

But it should be an embarrassment insofar as so much money was discovered so late in the state budget process and then supposedly committed without ever having gone through the regular legislative review.

Where was the money hiding all this time? Russell says he came upon it in an insurance account established four years ago to guarantee the solvency of state government’s teacher pension fund. Now that the fund is sound, the treasurer says, the insurance account can be liquidated.

Whether all money “found” like this by the treasurer should be allocated to his favorite program, as he presumes, is really a decision for the legislature and should come after public discussion of competing uses for the cash.

After all, the nonprofit organizations whose poorly paid employees perform most of state government’s social work might like to be heard on the issue. So might nursing home workers, who are not so well paid either even as most of their patients are state wards.

Can the treasurer pull any rabbits out of the hat for them? Does he know whether more millions are lying around aimlessly in other obscure accounts?

Or does he look only on behalf of programs he likes?