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  • Connecticut Mirror

    Easier jobs make Dan, Geno better liked than legislators

    By Chris Powell,


    Celebrating Dan Hurley’s decision this week to keep coaching the men’s basketball team at the University of Connecticut, state House Speaker Matt Ritter confirmed a thought previously reserved for cynics.

    That is, UConn’s success with basketball is state government’s great rationalization for giving the university whatever it wants financially year after year.

    Ritter said: “I think there are times when legislators wonder, ‘Why UConn? Why higher education?’ There were comments about how we were giving so much money to UConn even this year. But Dan Hurley and [women’s basketball coach] Geno Auriemma are four million more times popular than the most popular state legislator.”

    True. But then in a crucial respect the coaching jobs are much easier than those of state legislators — at least the jobs of legislators who aspire to serve the public interest.

    All the coaches have to do to please their constituents is win basketball games. Their players are united on this objective.

    The coaches have luxurious contracts that indemnify themselves against failure, as was recently demonstrated by UConn’s embarrassing and spectacularly expensive experience with former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie.

    There are no luxurious contracts for state legislators. They are elected for two-year terms with part-time salaries for what is often full-time work or close to it.

    Their teams aren’t unified. No, their constituents have a thousand objectives, many of them contradictory.

    While UConn always gets plenty of money despite its many management failures and financial excesses, state legislators have to find money themselves, first to pay for government and then for their own campaigns.

    But most of a legislator’s constituents want someone else to pay for the goodies government gives them. As the economist Frederic Bastiat put it long ago, “Government is the great fiction by which everybody tries to live at the expense of everybody else.”

    And even when the public interest is clear, there is usually a venal special interest with enough politically active adherents to get their way amid the public’s obliviousness.

    The popularity of Hurley and Auriemma might crash as soon as they had to assemble a state budget or take a position on a controversial policy issue — say, having 6-foot-4, 240-pound transgender players on high school and college women’s basketball teams.

    If many state legislators are the tools of special interests, it’s because so few of their constituents pay attention that making any friends requires being a tool.

    Money won’t fix schools

    What exactly does it mean that the state Education Department has instructed its commissioner to look into improving the finances of Hartford’s ever-struggling school system?

    Certainly there is much to improve. The academic performance of the city’s students long has been terrible. Hartford’s schools are facing a $40 million budget deficit and laying off hundreds of employees even as the system has tens of millions of dollars of emergency federal aid waiting to be spent.

    Republicans in the state Senate have good questions about the state’s intervention: Will state money be spent? Will Education Department employees be embedded in the Hartford school administration? Who will make decisions? Will labor contracts be reviewed? Will other struggling school systems in the state get similar evaluations? (They should.)

    The most important question here may be whether schools can accomplish much of anything when most of their students lack parents and are largely neglected. Since this may be the most important question, it has never been asked officially.

    In any case there is a small indication of progress. Hartford school officials lately have been openly complaining that their schools are being drained financially by tuition transfers required by the regional “magnet” schools craze prompted in the Hartford area by the long-running Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation case. The magnets are also draining the city’s neighborhood schools of their better students. Measured by educational and integrational results, the Sheff case has been a billion-dollar disaster. Maybe — just maybe — results will be measured one of these years.

    Money will never solve the education problem. It’s a matter of far bigger issues that politics isn’t ready to face.

    Chris Powell has written about Connecticut government and politics for many years.

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