Governor Lamont seems inclined to ask the General Assembly to extend his emergency powers again to deal with the virus epidemic when they expire at the end of the month. The governor’s request likely would be for another 90 days. The legislature should decline.
For starters, while the epidemic continues and is expected to continue indefinitely, there no longer is an emergency.
An emergency is something that is sudden, unexpected, and urgent. But the governor’s emergency powers have been in effect for 18 months, the epidemic has become a way of life for everyone, and nothing about it is sudden, unexpected, and urgent.
For months Connecticut has been dealing well with the epidemic, and the governor can take much credit for that. But he will not deserve credit for changing the definition of “emergency.” When something becomes permanent, it’s not an emergency anymore.
At the beginning of the epidemic state legislators were only too happy to abdicate to the governor and run home and hide under their beds even as their constituents trudged on, trying to keep working as best they could, when they were allowed to work at all.
Now even legislators have discovered they can adapt with internet meetings and “social distancing” in the workplace. The General Assembly held a relatively normal legislative session this year.
So there’s no reason for the legislature to keep deferring all epidemic-related policy decisions to the governor. The legislature is fully capable of reviewing his emergency declarations, enacting some into statute and nullifying others, and fully capable of approving or rejecting his additional proposals and involving the public through hearings in person or on the internet.
Just as important as the procedure for resuming normal government is the substance. The governor’s emergency rules long have touched nearly every aspect of life - business, commerce, schools, restaurants, and more. It is hardly possible to leave one’s home for even a half-hour without having to comply with some executive order that was not in place a year and a half ago, an order issued directly by the governor or by municipal officials to whom he has delegated authority.
Democracy requires the people’s assent to such rules through their elected representatives. Otherwise Connecticut has reverted to monarchy. While it has been a benevolent monarchy so far, even that risks eroding the state’s habit of democracy, which was already fragile enough before the epidemic.
If a real emergency descends on the state after Sept. 30 – an asteroid strike, a solar flare, a plague of frogs or locusts, or anything else Connecticut hasn’t been handling for 18 months already – the governor can always ask legislative leaders to abdicate to him again. Until then, ordinary democracy should resume, and legislators who are unwilling to do the jobs they were elected to do should resign and let the people choose replacements.
* * *
HOUSING PRICE DISASTER: Anyone in Connecticut who owns his home may be rejoicing over the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s report two weeks ago that house prices in the state have risen 20% in the last 12 months. But actually this is a disaster, since housing is, like food, a necessity of life, and homeownership is the primary mechanism of giving people a stake in society generally and their community particularly and of building generational wealth.
Of course, the problem is not peculiar to Connecticut. Nationally house prices rose 17% in the last year, the main reasons being the de-urbanization stoked by the virus epidemic, inflation, and interest rates that have been pushed below the inflation rate by the Federal Reserve, which is pumping up asset prices to protect the wealthy while the poor choke.
But housing prices are Connecticut’s problem all the same, and rising prices for houses are pulling up rental housing prices as well, squeezing the poor. Higher prices for necessities reduce discretionary income and thereby risk weakening the economy.
The solution is for government to enable the market to increase supply – to loosen land-use restrictions and allow conversion of vacant commercial properties to housing. But will people sitting on another 20% in unrealized capital gains cooperate politically?
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.