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Do state legislators have courage of grocery clerks?

The Chris Powell Column

When, in March, the leaders of the General Assembly suspended its regular session and then, last month, canceled it entirely, they were frightened of the virus epidemic. But now, after weeks of doing nothing except watching impotently, legislators are starting to seem more frightened of their own responsibilities.

After all, the state budget is a shambles, epidemic-mitigation expenses having exploded and tax revenue having collapsed. So what legislator isn’t happy to let Gov. Lamont rule by decree, shuffle the money around desperately as best he can, decide whom to help and whom to short, and determine how much longer to keep commerce closed? There is no fun in that, only risk and potential resentment.

But somehow the supermarkets, pharmacies, gas stations, hospitals, nursing homes and various other businesses officially deemed “essential” have managed to remain open with little more augmentation than makeshift face masks and bleach. Other government agencies have continued to meet through electronic means, even complying with public accountability rules online.

This situation implies that the General Assembly isn’t more “essential” than barber shops or hair salons, which become more essential every day as hair tickles ears and collars and gray roots start glaring. While the barber shops and hair salons may reopen in two weeks, this may not be so encouraging, since at that point people may start to realize how long returning to normality will take, with barbers and hairdressers needing many months to work off their customers’ inventory. (People may do best to start lining up outside now, as for tickets for a Beatles reunion concert.)

As the saying goes, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session,” so maybe cynics will figure that the longer the Legislature is suspended, the better. Tireless as Gov. Lamont has been during the virus emergency, and as much as he is suddenly held in much higher esteem because of his efforts, public dissatisfaction with him can only grow the longer ordinary life remains disrupted.

Of course the emergency is not the governor’s fault. But with the General Assembly self-suspended even as legislators, like many other government employees, continue to be paid and insured for not working, the public’s normal mechanism for expressing discontent is broken and the governor has no one to share responsibility with.

So while Connecticut’s law on declaring emergencies is similar to the laws of other states, it may be too broad. It has enabled the governor to commandeer the state even though the Legislature was in session and not threatened with dispersal by any enemy. While Lamont has been sensitive to civil liberty, some other governors invoking the emergency laws of their states have not been, and Connecticut’s law could be similarly abused in the future.

With an issue as important as reopening commerce, why shouldn’t the Legislature claim a say? Except for cowardice, why shouldn’t legislators go on record about whether the big raises due for unionized state employees on July 1 should be postponed or canceled?

Lamont has been a benevolent dictator, but benevolent dictatorship should not become Connecticut’s form of government.

The General Assembly disbanded itself needlessly and should reconvene immediately. Legislators will just have to summon a little of the courage being shown by nursing home aides, grocery clerks, and the governor himself.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

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