Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Possibilities for saving our hometown newspapers.

Yesterday, other officials and I met with state Economic and Community Development Commissioner Joan McDonald regarding our efforts to keep the New Britain Herald, Bristol Press and weekly newspapers from closing.  This was the follow-up to the previous meeting we has with the Commissioner.

The newspapers are owned by the Journal Register Company (JRC), which has said that it will close the newspapers very shortly if they are not purchased.  I worked to organize area legislators to bring attention to this situation and seek the assistance of the Commissioner in the hopes that one or more buyers would take ownership of the papers and keep them open.

After hearing the Commissioner's report on her work, I can say that I am pleased with her efforts and that of her department.  They actively informed potential buyers of the fact that the newspapers were for sale and let them know about state assistance that is available to businesses that have a good plan to preserve jobs in the state.

Between efforts of the Department and the publicity, there are now potential buyers looking into purchasing the newspapers:
...McDonald said she sent out 16 letters to perspective buyers in the newspaper industry. ... Since the Dec. 10 letter went out McDonald said her office has received one response from the letter, one from the news reports of the meeting, one referral from state Rep. Tim O’Brien, D-New Britain, and two referrals from Dirks, Van Essen and Murray, the brokerage firm from New Mexico retained by the Journal Register Co. to manage the sale of the papers.  (CTNewJunkie)  
Connecticut's economic development commissioner told local and state officials Monday that her office received responses from five media companies that may be interested in buying some or all the daily and weekly newspapers put up for sale by the Journal Register Publishing Co.  (AP - printed in The Day) 
This is a Channel 61 story about this:

(Just a note of correction: It was the Commissioner who sent the letters to the prospective buyers.)

So we now have potential buyers.  At this point, things are in the hands of the newspapers' current owner and their prospective owners.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Time to revisit my proposal for democratic elections of Senators

Two years ago, I introduced legislation, House Bill 5034 , which proposed that there be special elections when there is a vacancy in a U.S. Senate seat representing Connecticut.  Like most states, Connecticut law provides that the Governor choose a member of the Senate when someone leaves that office, and the Governor's selected person stays there until the next regular election - for as long as two full years.

My proposal was simple - let the people decide who represents them.  It is already the process we use to fill a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives when someone leaves that office.  There is no good reason for why the process for filling vacancies in the U.S. Senate should be any different.

In fact, my reason for proposing this legislation was that, the previous year, as Vice-Chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, I worked on some technical, but important, changes in the law affecting special elections for U.S. House.  While I was doing this work, I found it peculiar that there was a completely different area of law concerning U.S. Senate vacancies - with a very different, and much less democratic process.  There was not time to take this issue up that year, but I decided I would bring it up again.  That was where 2007 HB 5034 came from.

At the time, people who favored the idea that Gov. Rell should be able to choose a U.S. Senator, herself, opposed my proposal.  There were a lot of unfair, unreasonable and, frankly, partisan accusations made about what should have been seen as a common-sense idea to replace an archaic and silly system with a law that would let the people choose who represents them in the Senate of the United States.  Neither HB5034 nor a similar bill considered last year were approved against this unfortunate partisan backdrop.

However, the terrible scandal involving Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich shows that my proposal should be re-considered this year and approved.  As an article in the New York Times shows, Gov. Blagojevich's apparent attempt to use his sole power to name a Senator as an opportunity to make money for himself is only the latest in a long history of problems that are caused by governors having this power.

As Carl Hulse, for the Times, points out,
Given the prestige of a Senate seat and its magnetic allure to politicians, it is perhaps not surprising that when these vacancies come up, the process of awarding the office has become fraught with malfeasance and political peril.
In the same Times article, Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution had this to say:
“These temporary appointments have often been subject to abuse or tacky behavior,” said Mr. Mann, adding, “I suspect this will lead a number of states to dispense with the temporary appointments and go directly to a special election.”
I suspect Mr. Mann is correct that states will soon begin replacing this silly old, problem-laden system with democracy.  Connecticut should start this trend by approving the legislation I proposed.

I certainly plan to propose it again.

Update December 15th:

Thanks to Genghis Conn at Connecticut Local Politics for his blog post in support of this proposal.

Also, I offer my thanks for the kind words at NBPoliticus.

To further bolster the need for this, here are some notes about what Republicans in Illinois are doing on this issue (from AP writer Christopher Wills):
The GOP also plans to run television ads pressuring Democrats to approve a special election ... Illinois Republican Party chairman Andy McKenna told reporters the ads will "make the point that this is the people's seat, and the people deserve a special election."
If it is a good idea in Illinois, it is in every state, including Connecticut.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Meeting on keeping the Herald and other papers from closing.

This morning legislators representing New Britain, Bristol, Newington and other towns, as well as Gary Friedle, Chairman of the New Britain Downtown District, met with state Economic and Community Development Commissioner Joan McDonald to discuss the economic development assistance that could be appropriate to find new owners for the New Britain Herald, the Bristol Press and 11 weekly newspapers.

As I wrote previously, I am very concerned about harm that New Britain would experience, both in our economy and our community life, if we did not have a daily newspaper based in our city.  The other New Britain legislators, Sen. Don DeFronzo, Rep. John Geragosian, Rep. Peter Tercyak and Rep. Betty Boukus, share these concerns.  The legislators representing Bristol and the towns covered by weeklies, including the Newington Town Crier, agree.

It was very important that Gary Friedle joined us at the meeting to discuss the concern we share about the negative effect that losing our daily newspaper could have on New Britain's businesses and economy.  He advocated very well for our city.

The meeting was very productive and I am pleased with the proactive approach that the Commissioner is taking.  I offer her and the Governor my thanks for their assistance.

We will be meeting again in a couple of weeks to talk about any progress.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Department of Transportation is taking too long to complete the busway.

I was on the New Britain City Council when the Hartford-New Britain Busway plan was proposed. That was the better part of a decade ago. And the busway was supposed to be complete and operating by now. As time has dragged on, that delay has become increasingly frustrating. The article in today's Courant does nothing but add to that frustration.

Connecticut, especially the greater Hartford area, has been hurt economically and in terms of quality of life, by the sorry state of our public transit system. New Britain has been especially harmed because the highways that went up in decades past have largely cut New Britain out of our regional economy. Having New Britain as the primary starting point for a new, regional public transit system can be a major development in the economic renewal of our city. Plus, especially in as global warming and other environmental concerns become more pressing, public transit is important for a low-pollution future - and if it needs to happen anyway, it should be done so that New Britain benefits from it.

The reason the busway idea was chosen by the state DOT over rail transit had to do with cost. As I recall, the original proposal said that the busway would cost $80 million, perhaps $100 million. A lot of money, but much less, the DOT told us, than commuter rail. And since a busway, the state DOT said, was as a favored idea in the federal "New Starts" program, most of that money would come from the federal government.

But now, not only is this project many years behind schedule, but its cost has also vastly increased - with new projections in the area of $600 million. I consider this to be an enormous failure on the part of the state DOT, and I can find no excuse for it. It reminds me of how the state DOT handled a different project - the train maintenance facility in New Haven - which increased in cost from the $300 million is was supposed to cost when it was approved to $1.2 billion. I am also reminded of the DOT's failure in the Rt. 84 upgrade - failures that required redoing much of the project at great cost.

I agree with Mayor Timothy Stewart that there needs to a change in "the culture of the DOT, which is to mire these projects in bureaucracy." I also agree that getting the busway project completed is a high priority. To help get it done the Mayor needs to work with the New Britain state legislative delegation - which has long been pushing for completion of this project. The state DOT answers to Gov. M. Jodi Rell, not to the legislature - as the Rell administration is quick to point out when the legislature has insisted on action from state agencies. Pressing his frustration with the DOT to the Governor is the best way that Mr. Stewart can be supportive of the delegation's efforts on behalf of New Britain.

The future of whole state requires that state departments get the priorities of the Connecticut's people done quickly, efficiently and well. Now, more than ever, with our economy worsening and people losing jobs and homes, administrators of state agencies need to get things done. Connecticut's future, economically and environmentally, must include greatly increased transit. And we need a state DOT that will make that happen.

We need to see a stronger push in this direction from the leadership in the DOT.