Coutu: Stamp out legislators' costly district mailings

Hartford - Every week, taxpayers can foot the bill for as many as 500 pieces of mail on behalf of each of the 151 members of the state House of Representatives.

Most of that mail is preprinted fliers that broadcast the lawmakers' accomplishments to their constituents.

The 36 state senators, whose districts are larger, may send out 1,000 pieces of mail each week, also charged to the taxpayer. And at the end of the year, all 187 legislators can use public funds to send an annual report to every household in the territories they represent.

For all that mail, the cost of postage adds up.

The Office of Legislative Management spent about $1.5 million in 2009 on postage, said John Harnick, the financial administrator for the office, which handles the General Assembly's facilities and budget.

And that, says Rep. Christopher Coutu, R-Norwich, is money the state can't afford to spend as it struggles to close a more than $500 million budget deficit while facing even greater fiscal challenges in the future.

Coutu, a licensed financial adviser who was first elected in 2008 on promises to find ways to cut the state budget, has proposed slashing by half the amount of mail legislators can send to constituents on the taxpayer's dime.

Other methods of communication are just as effective in reaching many voters to inform them about important developments at the Capitol, Coutu said. Cutting back on the legislature's own expenses, he noted, would send a signal to voters that lawmakers have the stomach to make tough decisions on spending.

"Instead of constituents getting three or four pieces of mail every two years, they'd get one to two," he said. "It not only would save a lot of money, it's a good way to show you're leading by example."

Reducing district mailings in a time of chronic state deficits, Coutu said, is simple "common sense."

The proposal will face resistance, however, from lawmakers who say that they've already cut back on other costs associated with their district mailings, including printing expenses, and who also say that the mailers are an increasingly important source of information for voters as newspapers scale back coverage of state government.

"I think it's an important function to have to communicate with our constituents," said House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden. "I'd say there's about 80 percent less news coverage than there used to be at the Capitol."

The legislature is "rigorous" in ensuring that the mailings aren't used for electioneering, Donovan said, and has cut back on color printing to save money.

"I think we're gray-on-gray right now," he said of the mailers.

Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, was similarly dismissive of Coutu's proposal, which he called a "feel-good" measure.

"People in our districts need to know what's going on, and this is the only way to let them know," Hewett said. "Some things you need to just not mess with."

Instead, reducing "big-ticket" items like deputy commissioner positions within the executive branch would produce meaningful savings, Hewett said.

"You know why they're doing it? Because it looks like they're doing something," he said. "They're not doing anything."

The Office of Legislative Management spent $962,688 on the weekly postage for lawmakers, said John Harnick, the financial administrator for the agency. In the same year, the office spent an additional $531,475 on the district-wide mailers usually sent out on behalf of each lawmaker at year's end.

Those figures include the cost of the lawmakers' overage allowances, which allow each House member to exceed the 500-piece weekly limit by a total of 3,125 pieces of mail per calendar year. The overage allowance for senators is 12,500 pieces of excess mail, Harnick said.

Those expenditures do not include any printing costs.

Some legislators already have asked that mailings on their behalf be suspended during the current fiscal downturn, but in an interview this week, Coutu said it would take an act of the legislature to rein in the mailing privileges to which lawmakers have grown accustomed. And he wouldn't mind seeing the General Assembly go all the way and cut out the mailing privileges altogether.

"Have elected officials print up posters on their own dime, or find other ways to be creative to get their message out," Coutu said. "Nobody voluntarily cuts their mailings. I think it's going to take a change in the rules."

t.mann@theday.com

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