Is A “Just The Legislature” CT-N Legal?

After a week of reruns, CT-N is back on the air today after the Office of Legislative Management hired some former employees of the Connecticut Public Affairs Network (CPAN), the non-profit that operated CT-N since 1999.   Legislative leadership says that CT-N, which is operating under a radically reduced budget, will focus its cameras on the General Assembly, largely to the exclusion of the executive and judicial branches.  Leaderships says that this narrow focus is consistent with CT-N’s original mission.  But as Christine Stuart reports today on CT News Junkie, leadership’s understanding of CT-N’s original mission is just plain wrong.  Coverage of all three branches of state government was always part of CT-N’s mission.

Leadership’s intention to keep CT-N’s cameras focused on the General Assembly raises two significant legal questions.  First, there is a serious question whether that focus is consistent with the statute that provides funding for CT-N’s operations.  General Statutes § 2-71x provides:

For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018, and each fiscal year thereafter, the Comptroller shall segregate one million six hundred thousand dollars of the amount of the funds received by the state from the tax imposed under chapter 211 on public service companies providing community antenna television service in this state. The moneys segregated by the Comptroller shall be deposited with the Treasurer and made available to the Office of Legislative Management to defray the cost of providing the citizens of this state with Connecticut Television Network coverage of state government deliberations and public policy events. (Emphasis supplied.)

Nothing in the text of § 2-71x authorizes or permits OLM to use the funds that the Comptroller deposits with the Treasurer to operate a cable channel that focuses only on the General Assembly, which is just one branch of our state government.  To the contrary, I believe that OLM is statutorily obligated to use the funds to defray the costs of covering all three branches of government.

Second, even if the text of § 2-71x could be read to authorize a “legislature-only” CT-N, the text arguably would run afoul of the state constitution.   Article second of the state constitution states:

The powers of government shall be divided into three distinct departments, and each of them confined to a separate magistracy, to wit, those which are legislative, to one; those which are executive, to another; and those which are judicial, to another.

From a constitutional perspective, however, no single branch is more important than the other two; that is, they are coequal branches of government.  Given the fundamental architecture of our state government, can a single branch–the General Assembly–constitutionally create and operate a television network that excludes the other branches from coverage, or that only permits coverage of the other branches at the discretion of the legislature?

I think the answer to this question is “no,” although I acknowledge the matter is open to debate, as are many constitutional questions.  But under the well-settled rule that statutes should be construed to avoid, rather than create, serious constitutional issues, § 2-71x should be construed to require CT-N to cover all three coequal branches of government.

The General Assembly is scheduled to reconvene tomorrow  in special session to consider revisions to the state budget it finally passed last month.  To avoid the legal problems discussed above, one of the revisions legislators should make is to restore proper funding for CT-N.   And OLM should be directed immediately to issue a new request for proposals for a non-profit entity, like CPAN, to operate the network, free of the editorial restrictions that OLM demanded in the RFP issued last spring.



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