- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 3, 2016

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Connecticut’s three watchdog agencies have argued that state law prevents Gov. Dannel P. Malloy from reducing their budgets, a claim being rejected by the Democrat’s budget director.

Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes contends Malloy has the legal authority to withhold funding, despite 2004 legislation prohibiting governors from reducing the annual budgets of the State Elections Enforcement Commission, the Office of State Ethics and the Freedom of Information Commission.

“I do not accept your interpretation of the statutory language,” Barnes said in a letter dated Aug. 2 to the executive directors of all three agencies, arguing that Malloy was granted authority to hold back funding to the agencies in the adopted fiscal year 2017 state budget.

“Rather than debate the point, I think it is more important to note that your agencies were not unfairly or disproportionately targeted in assigning the holdbacks: all facets of state government, including the legislative and judicial branches, are coping with reduced resources,” Barnes wrote, referring to the wide range of state budget cuts and layoffs recently imposed to help fix the state’s deficit.

Carol Carson, executive director of the Office of State Ethics, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the leaders of the three groups plan to seek an advisory opinion from Attorney General George Jepsen on whether Malloy has the ability to make the reductions.

The leaders of the three agencies sent a letter last month to Barnes questioning the legality of the cuts, pointing out how the General Assembly passed the 2004 legislation to protect the agencies’ independence. That legislation was passed amid the corruption scandal that ensnared former Republican Gov. John G. Rowland, who resigned from office that year.

“Many legislators noted that the independence of the watchdogs relies on their ability to be free from budgetary reductions imposed by a single elected executive,” the three leaders wrote in their July 6 letter.

OPM’s latest budget cuts come a month after the three agencies were pulled out from under the Office of Governmental Accountability, originally proposed by Malloy five years ago to create efficiencies, and were made independent entities once again.

The agency heads noted they learned June 28 the State Elections Enforcement Commission would lose $96,032; FOIC $44,442; and Ethics $42,549 from their state allocations. They said such cuts violate the 2004 law, despite the budget-cutting authority granted to Malloy in the budget bill. The agency heads said they did not challenge Malloy’s authority to make similar cuts in the past because “of a collective commitment to act as partners to solve the state’s dire fiscal situation.”

But they argued “the watchdogs simply cannot endure” the additional reductions that risk their mandated missions.

Both Ethics and FOIC have laid off staff while Elections Enforcement have already achieved savings through retirements and vacancies, among other cutbacks. Carson last month told the Citizens Ethics Advisory Board, that her agency “can’t experience any more staff cuts and be operational. We’re going beyond skeletal.”

She noted how the agency, which enforces ethics codes for state officials, employees and lobbyists, had 21 staff members and a budget of $2.4 million when she began her job more than eight years ago. Today, she said, the agency has 13 staff members and a budget of $1.4 million after years of cuts.

“You can only cut so much and then you start to say, ‘We can’t do our mission,’” Carson told the panel. “Further cuts will really damage our ability to do our basic core functions.”

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