Rail flap doesn’t stop Rell, Democrats from releasing $21M for holiday pork projects

The guiding principle at Wednesday’s State Bond Commission might be summed up as, “A playground in the hand is worth 38 rail cars on order.”

That variation on a time-honored adage would explain why Gov. M. Jodi Rell – 12 days after being publicly thwarted from completing a rail project dear to her heart – would help the same officials who stymied her carry $21 million worth of state funding for pet projects back to their home districts.

Mixed in among the 35 projects sought by legislators was a 36th initiative: $250,000 to construct a playground at the Kids Kingdom park in Rell’s home community of Brookfield.

Financing for these projects, typically referred to as “pork-barrel” funding by critics, was approved by the commission Wednesday in a series of 6-2 votes, with the opposition ballots being cast by the lame duck governor’s fellow Republicans: Rep. Vincent J. Candelora of North Branford and Sen. Andrew W. Roraback of Goshen.

“Connecticut cannot continue borrowing at the rate it is borrowing,” Candelora said afterward, adding that the bonded debt, coupled with the $3.67 billion deficit projected for its operating budget next year, has state government is struggling simply to pay its essential bills.

“When Vinnie says we’re broke, he’s sugar-coating it,” Roraback quickly added. “I believe these are desirable projects and when our state recovers I will be happy to support them.”

Roraback said the commission – which is chaired by Rell and works off an agenda set by her budget office – “is pretending we can afford to light playing fields … when we’re headed off of a precipice.”

Though the package approved Wednesday did include road resurfacing for an industrial park in East Windsor, business façade improvements in Putnam and Wethersfield and a new business incubation center in Hamden, the majority of the projects were tied to recreation, not economic development.

Rell said afterward that the primary reason for releasing these funds was to honor commitments she had made to the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.

“I think they are necessary projects for a number of towns,” she said, adding that in many cases towns have been raising private funds to be matched by the state.

But the governor also said earlier this month that she was one of the parents who originally helped build the Kids Kingdom playground in Brookfield, and she wants to see improvements made so it can become accessible to the handicapped.

Though Connecticut owes $7,886 for every man, woman and child in the state, ranks fourth in overall per capita debt, and is first in per capita debt that is being paid off with state tax dollars, Rell said she doesn’t believe this borrowing is wasteful.

Just two weeks ago, Democrats from the legislature and other constitutional offices combined to block Rell from getting the six votes she needed on the 10-member bond commission to borrow $81 million to purchase another 38 rail cars for commuter lines in shoreline communities.

Under Rell’s administration, Connecticut already has purchased 342 cars to replace an aging fleet on the Metro-North and Shoreline East lines. And the governor said these other 38 cars, which already have been ordered but not paid for yet, could cost another $1 million if the purchase is delayed even one month.

Democrats wouldn’t back spending $81 million on rail cars right now, arguing that it is too large for a last-minute expenditure by an outgoing administration and that the decision should rest with Gov.-elect Dan Malloy. Funding for pet projects also failed on the Dec. 10 agenda, but sources said it was revived for Wednesday’s docket because the rail funding request had been removed.

But if $81 million for new rail cars in the final weeks of the Rell administration is too much, why is $21 million for pet projects acceptable?

For two Democrats, it was not. Comptroller Nancy Wyman and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who boycotted the earlier commission meeting, stayed away Wednesday as well.

But two other Democrats who blocked Rell on the rail cars, Sen. Eileen Daily of Westbrook and Rep. Cameron C. Staples of New Haven, joined with three Rell administration officials on the panel and Deputy State Treasurer Howard Rifkin to support funding for the community-based projects.

Staples agreed with Rell that it was important to meet commitments most lawmakers made to their towns months ago or earlier. Daily said the funding represents a “small stimulus package” and could provide a boost to a few local economies.