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Carol’s Column: People Pay for Low-Energy Government

It’s midnight, Saturday night, in the middle of the statewide electrical outages after Tropical Storm Isaias. I’m lying in bed, bathed in a pool of my own sweat. And I am seething.

Our family is one of the lucky ones – we have a generator, so our refrigerator and at least some of our lights work. But the old trick of counting my blessings isn’t doing much to help me now. I’m hot, I’m wide awake, and I’m disgusted.

It occurs to me that government in Connecticut tries to do a lot. In fact, just this year, it’s taken the unprecedented step of telling virtually everyone in the private sector whether they can earn a living and go to church – and if so, when and how. I can’t get past the breathtaking arrogance of it all, especially when it’s become apparent Connecticut’s government can’t even keep the lights on or properly run an election.  

No doubt Eversource is a disgrace. But even more repellent are the posturing politicians who have taken to Twitter to denounce the company. After all, Eversource is a highly regulated utility (which still enjoys a virtual monopoly over electricity transmission and distribution), so its primary constituency isn’t really its customers . . . it’s the politicians.  

And politicians are the ones who have emphasized “green” requirements and “sustainable” commitments to the detriment of basic operations and delivery of service. In fact, in its June 2020 publication “A Sustainable Investment Opportunity,” Eversource panders to them without restraint, touting itself as the “Only US Energy Utility Targeting Carbon Neutrality By 2030.” That’s an admirable goal, to be sure – but you can bet it doesn’t come without (high and regressive) costs.

Nor does the politicians’ complicity in our current mess end there. Even before Connecticut’s people sweltered without power for days on end, we were paying more for the electricity we did have. To hear them splutter, one might have thought our state politicians were as shocked by our bills as we were. But Governor Lamont’s hand-picked utility regulators authorized the rate increases. And what’s more, as Yankee Institute reported, even as Attorney General Tong demanded greater scrutiny into the rate increase, it turned out his own office had been party to the hearings and documents that came before the Public Utility Regulatory Authority. If the governor and attorney general actually were surprised, they shouldn’t have been.

Given this circus, it’s surprising to hear so many arguing that state ownership of utilities would solve Connecticut’s electrical woes. Is there any governmental entity – DFS? the pension system? — that inspires a reasonable person with confidence that outcomes would improve if the state assumed total control?

After all, Connecticut struggles to manage even core governmental core functions like voting. Take this week’s primary.  Due to what the Wall Street Journal politely characterizes as a “communication breakdown” with the Secretary of State’s office, town clerks were delayed in mailing absentee ballots (which, by executive order, the governor made available to all voters due to COVID-19 fears). As a result, there’s a real chance some ballots will be returned too late even to be counted. What’s more, the ballots require absentee voters to sign a statement “under penalty of false statement in absentee balloting” — an offense carrying a penalty of up to five years in prison — that the voter qualifies to cast the ballot under one of five restrictive criteria set by state law. Unfortunately, none of those qualifications includes the COVID-19 justification that accounts for the vast majority of absentee ballots that will be cast this year.

They can’t even force a utility they effectively control to keep the lights on. They can’t run an efficient primary election in one of the smallest states in the country. Yet these same people routinely presume to instruct Connecticut’s small businesses on the minutiae of how to function and demand an ever-increasing share of your earnings to fund its own operations (and its employees pay increases).

So, despite the impassioned denunciations from politicians like Senator Blumenthal — demanding accountability from Eversource executives – it seems fair to ask: can any of these posturing politicos tell us when the last time was that anyone in state government was held accountable for anything?

Lying in bed last weekend, I genuinely couldn’t remember. And worst of all: While I was lying awake, sweaty and annoyed, it seemed likely that far too many Connecticut politicians were fast asleep, dreaming the dreams of the clueless and complacent.

Carol Platt Liebau

Carol has worked as an attorney, author, political and policy advisor, and media commentator. In addition to practicing law, she has served as legislative assistant to Senator Christopher S. “Kit” Bond of Missouri; as a consultant to the U.S. Senate campaigns of John D. Ashcroft of Missouri (1994) and Congressman Tom Campbell of California (2000 and 2010); and as law clerk to Reagan appointee Judge David B. Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

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