Home » Now Weicker tells us; facilitating felons

Now Weicker tells us; facilitating felons

Everybody in Connecticut — its disengaged governor, a Republican, its slap-happy Legislature, controlled by Democrats, and the voters who elected them — shares responsibility for state government’s insolvency, former Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. told the annual meeting of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities the other day.

Though he was the great enabler of the spending binge he was now deploring, the governor who forced the state income tax through the General Assembly in 1991, Weicker didn’t quite include himself in his indictment. So, as he said, state government will have to make “huge” cuts in spending next year, some people might have thought: Now he tells us.

After all, this was the governor who in his one term chose a huge tax increase over huge spending cuts because, difficult as getting the income tax passed was, raising taxes was for him, as it is for nearly everyone in politics, a lot easier than cutting spending. Among the money spent during Weicker’s term was nearly $70 million to subsidize a big-league hockey team in Hartford, which moved away when the subsidy was cut off under the next governor.

“I don’t want to hear any more pejoratives about the income tax and Lowell Weicker,” he said. “Because everybody’s had 19 years to repeal it. It hasn’t been repealed, but it has certainly been spent.”

Yes, but what could Weicker or anyone else have expected? The people at the public trough are always far more motivated to stay there, their whole livelihoods depending on it, than the people who are taxed a mere portion of their livelihoods to fill the trough.

And while Weicker told the municipal officials that enactment of the income tax included reducing the sales tax as well as some cuts in spending, the state’s total tax burden went way up and the spending cuts were quickly restored by the new extra revenue.

The next budget, Weicker said, will require “a very cold shower for a very drunk state.”

Yes, but it was Weicker himself who brought the booze. He’s not always wrong, but his hypocrisy can make him insufferable.

Back in the old days, a felony meant a crime especially bad, carrying punishment of a year or more in prison as well as some impairment of civil rights, like the right to vote, at least for a certain length of time. But this year the General Assembly unanimously passed legislation to facilitate state government’s hiring of felons — legislation to prevent state government’s hiring managers from asking applicants about their criminal records until the very end of the hiring process, instead of at the beginning.

Noting that state law already forbids denying employment solely on the basis of criminal record, Gov. Rell vetoed the bill. The veto seems likely to be overridden, but it should prompt some review of the schizophrenia of state policy here.

For if felonies generally or certain felonies are not so serious that they should interfere with future employment, why are they felonies in the first place? Indeed, to their great credit, the leading advocates of preventing or diminishing inquiry into criminal records during hiring are also advocates of decriminalizing and medicalizing the drug problem. But that problem should be addressed without trivializing the distinctions of the law itself.

If the Legislature means, say, that a conviction 15 years ago for selling drugs when someone was 20 years old shouldn’t prevent him from becoming a snowplow driver for the Transportation Department, or that it shouldn’t be considered much in his application, that’s not quite what the legislation suggests. For the legislation also suggests that a manslaughter conviction shouldn’t disqualify someone from becoming a case worker for the Department of Children and Families.

Integrating offenders back into society and the workplace once they have discharged their sentences does require much more effort from state government. Too often parolees are dumped at halfway houses and shelters, unskilled in everything but crime. State government should guarantee parolees a room and a minimum-wage job with public agencies doing park maintenance or public sanitation until they can establish normal lives. The cost would be recovered quickly through the reduction in recidivism.

But all this can be done without depriving words and the criminal justice system itself of their meaning. “Felony” is not yet a girl’s name. It means serious crime, and politicians who mean well should have the courage to say plainly that drug criminalization has failed and that its costs are higher than the costs of drug abuse itself.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

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