Sunday, August 02, 2009

One more questionable Official Connecticut practice?

Rell Letters To Graduates Draw Scrutiny

Jon Lender Government Watch

August 2, 2009



Every year, Gov. M. Jodi Rell sends personalized letters of congratulation to new graduates of the University of Connecticut, the Connecticut State University System and the 12 state community colleges.

It's a practice the Republican chief executive began during 2005, her first full year in office. Her staff can't remember any other governors doing that; John G. Rowland, who resigned in mid-2004 in a corruption scandal, did not send such letters to graduates, Rell press aide Rich Harris said.

This year, 11,892 letters are being printed on official governor's stationery, folded and stuffed by Rell's staff and mailed at taxpayers' expense to graduates with Connecticut addresses, Harris said. They bear a blue state seal and Rell's signature printed in black.

Postage, at a bulk rate of 35.7 cents a letter, would be about $4,245 by itself, but Harris said he didn't know the total cost of the mailings. They come out of an annual printing and postage allotment that totaled $32,000 a year ago, he said. What Harris did know was that "legislators sent 4.4 million pieces of mail in Fiscal 2008 — the last year for which full figures are available — at a cost of $655,000 for printing and $1.7 million for postage."

So this is one of those political tools that an incumbent governor can employ to make constituents feel good and maybe build up her popularity at the same time. No big deal in the grand scheme of things, right?

And yet some observers think Rell's mailings are still worth examining.

Why?

•Because Rell has proclaimed ethics and good government as her watchwords, and issued an "executive directive" telling heads of government agencies to stop using paper unnecessarily during the current state budget crisis. "Use paperless processes whenever possible," she said.

•Because Rell's practice is unusual. Checks with governor's offices in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey found that none of them do it.

•And because, as nice as many graduates and their families may think it is to get a letter from the governor, not everybody likes the idea — certainly not the parent who wrote to The Courant to complain about it as exploitative — and some skeptics think the mailings may be political self-promotion on the taxpayers' dime.

"Any mass mailings sent by public officials at taxpayers' expense are fundamentally self-promotional and deserve some scrutiny," said Fergus Cullen, director of the Yankee Institute, "Connecticut's free-market think tank."

Harris called them "simple, congratulatory letters ... with an important message: Please make your home and your career in our state. We appreciate you and we need you — you are Connecticut's future."

One paragraph in the letters "sums it up nicely," Harris said. It says: "Whether you are planning on furthering your education, entering the work force or pursuing other endeavors, I strongly urge you to remain in Connecticut, a state with limitless opportunities and wonderful communities in which to begin a career."

The letters, by trying to keep "our best and our brightest" in Connecticut, serve an economic development purpose, adding that "virtually all" of them go to "Connecticut-only addresses."

But why limit it to people who can vote in Connecticut elections? Why not send letters to UConn grads from out of state? "Presumably, we'd like them to stay in Connecticut as well," Cullen said. "If it's for economic development, it should go to everybody."

Harris said the letters are not intended to draw votes in future elections.

Producing the letters now is an annual routine. "It's that time of the year! Please have your respective universities and colleges submit their 2009 Graduation lists in the format provided," a Rell staff member wrote May 11 in an e-mail to UConn, other state universities and community colleges.

That e-mail was released by UConn spokesman Michael Kirk, who said Rell's office asks every year for "directory information," including names and home addresses, on soon-to-graduate students from inside the state.

This is not the first time anyone has suggested that Rell has promoted herself with taxpayer funds. Senate Democrats earlier this year launched a study of the costs of public-service ads costing more than $1 million in which Rell has touted causes such as safe driving or "Staycation" tourism.

When Rell became governor in mid-2004, she said good government would take precedence over politics. But in 2005, her office spent $3,000 in tax money to issue a slick "Annual Report of the Governor" that looked like a campaign flier with close to 20 photos and glowing descriptions of Rell's "bold approach" to leadership.

Critics jumped on it, and there have been no glossy "annual reports" since then.

Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at jlender@courant.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115.

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A past Stark Raving Viking blog post:

Monday, December 10, 2007

Will I be writing a letter to Governor M. Jodi Rell when she goes to prison?


Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell with a buzz on?

Would the letter I write to Jodi be like the one I wrote to former Governor John G. Rowland?
[that letter]
posted by The Stark Raving Viking at 9:52 PM 1 comments links to this post

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