At the Capitol, keeping score can be expensive

If the Boston Red Sox have relied on a manual scoreboard on their famous left field wall for nearly 80 years, does the state House of Representatives really need new electronic boards to tally votes at a cost of $800,000 in tough fiscal times?

Sen. Andrew W. Roraback of Goshen asked the question Friday, shortly after he and a fellow Republican, Rep. Sean J. Williams of Watertown tried unsuccessfully to block the release of bonding for new technology for the Hall of the House.

“In my neck of the woods you can get a pretty nice house for $800,000,” Roraback, said during the State Bond Commission meeting.

Roraback, who recently became a candidate for Congress, noted after the meeting that while the House boards, located on the eastern and western walls, have malfunctioned on occasion in recent years, lawmakers ordered more than $1.6 billion in tax and fee hikes at the state and municipal levels combined.

“There was a legislature long before there were electronic voting boards,” he said, adding that an occasional malfunction “is a product of the rhythm of the General Assembly” and not a crisis.

Roraback and Williams, the lone Republicans on the 10-member bond panel, together objected to $3.3 million in funding released Friday. Besides the electronic voting boards, those allocations also include $2 million to acquire property and design a new Boys and Girls Club in Bristol, and $500,000 to finance streetscape improvements in West Haven’s Allingtown Business District.

Williams also opposed a $14.3 million package of grants to support a library expansion in East Hartford, repairs to town facilities in Manchester, and Bloomfield, a new community center in Danbury, infrastructure upgrades in a Norwalk commercial area and new equipment for St. Joseph College’s school of pharmacy in Hartford.

“I’ve been consistently voting against projects that I perceive to be earmarks, or what some people would call ‘pork,'” Williams said, adding that Democrats aren’t controlling expenses carefully in tough fiscal times.

The legislature “authorizes” bonding, tentatively reserving space on the state’s credit card for projects to be paid with long-term financing. But only the bond commission, which is composed of the governor and members of his administration, other constitutional officers, and some legislators, has the authority to decide if and when the state will release bond funds for particular projects.

Roraback said some of the items that received funding Friday initially were authorized several years ago, when the legislature wasn’t adequately responding to the last recession. “It was a circus at the time some of these authorizations were passed,” he said.

But Rep. Patricia Widlitz, D-Guilford, who serves on the bond commission and co-chairs the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, said the funding approved both for the voting board and for the community projects was limited and reasonable.

“We have to learn our lesson from not keeping up with things in the past,” she said after the meeting. “We have to maintain our facilities, we have to move forward with public health and education initiatives and we have to take care of our children. There has to be a balance.”

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, also a Democrat, said afterward that “the legislature ultimately makes the decision about what it needs to operate” and it identified the voting board as a priority. He offered it as another example of deferred maintenance, with the bill now coming due.

D’Ann Mazzocca, director of the Office of Legislative Management, said the decades-old voting boards currently used in the House not only have begun to break down more frequently, and have become increasingly difficult to repair.

“We’re fortunate that it hasn’t been more disruptive so far,” she said, adding that because that voting board model no longer is in production, the legislature has struggled to find repair parts, which have to be stripped from other outdated models no longer in use.

Tentative plans call for board replacement to begin during the regular 2012 legislative session, though Mazzocca said work might not be completed before the session ends in early May.

Without a functioning electronic tally board, counting votes in the 151-member House is a laborious process. With amendments, some bills can require a half-dozen or more roll call votes.