Sen. Somers' taxpayer-funded Capitol Update looks like a campaign flier

When a big color pamphlet with a picture of a smiling state Sen. Heather Somers dropped out of my mailbox this week, I thought of it as the beginning of the election season campaign literature onslaught.

The mailings got increasingly sharp-elbowed during Somers' last bid for the 18th District seat she won in 2016, with attacks and counterattacks from each candidate.

This opening volley from Somers this summer is actually not legally a campaign communication. It is in fact a government-financed mailing to her constituents, one she is allowed to make throughout the district once in the year, no later than July 15 in an election year.

So it's the last chance for a legislator/candidate to use their franking privileges for free mailings, to make a last taxpayer-funded bid for voter loyalty.

I use Somers as an example here because I live in her district and got her pamphlet in my mail but, of course, she is just another lawmaker practicing the perks for incumbents that have been long baked into the system. It's widely used by both Democrats and Republicans.

The franking privileges have come under fire in recent years, with more than one newspaper calling for their abolishment, especially in an era when essential aid to municipalities and education is in such peril.

The money, some $1 million a year for both the House and Senate, is a trickle in the state budget. But it is totally unnecessary and a perk for incumbency that, in the digital age, has long outlived its original intent, the occasional letter from Hartford from your lawmaker.

A bill to end the practice was introduced in 2017 but never made it out of committee. Surprise, surprise.

The other argument against these "legislative updates" is that they tend to be rabidly partisan.

They stop short of patent campaign terminology. They don't actually ask for your vote.

But they certainly have the basics of campaign literature, like lots of flattering pictures of the lawmaker hard at work, in a hearing room, meeting with constituents, being interviewed, usually looking serious and engaged and hard at work doing the people's business.

What struck me about Somers' flier was how much positive spin she manages to put on a legislative session in which I think many voters, Republican and Democrat, might agree was a pretty big zero in the category of accomplishments.

The big elephant in the room, the state's pension commitment, lives on and keeps growing, and not many thorny issues, like transportation woes and the state's gambling future, got resolved.

Wouldn't most voters agree that legislators wedged some more rags in the leaking ship of state, enough to limp beyond the next election with boasts that no new taxes were levied?

Honestly, to read Somers' 2018 Capitol update, with its talk of treatment for opioid abuse, funding for schools and municipalities, help for the elderly and people with intellectual disabilities, you would think that Connecticut somehow last year had managed to widen the social safety net and improve residents' lives without one dime in new taxes.

Welcome to legislative updates in the campaign season.

Of course, I couldn't help but be bemused to see a Republican candidate, whose party in Washington has been busy undermining government ethics, attacking health care benefits, undermining the Justice Department and law enforcement, shredding environmental regulation and now putting the right to abortion at risk, to be boasting of what she has done to improve health care and fight corruption.

This is at the heart of the strange compromise of Connecticut citizens, often voting different parties and priorities for Hartford and Washington, that I believe may start to unravel in this crucial election year, when so many national issues and decisions are coming home to roost. Many Connecticut residents have lost deductions as the result of the Republicans' tax reform.

It is interesting that I haven't seen any fliers recently from my state representative, a Democrat. But then, she's not running for re-election.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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