- Associated Press - Friday, August 19, 2016

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget director on Friday released $183,000 in state funds it had withheld from the state’s three watchdog agencies, but he stopped short of agreeing Malloy was barred from making the cuts in the first place.

Ben Barnes, who is secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, said he “voluntarily agreed” to release the funding to the Office of State Ethics, the State Elections Enforcement Commission and the Freedom of Information Commission “independent of any legal interpretation of OPM’s authority with respect to the budget reduction.”

Barnes met Friday with the leaders of the three watchdogs. He said his decision was in the best interest of the agencies and the state.

“I believe they should have the resources necessary to continue their important missions through the remainder of the fiscal year,” Barnes said in a written statement.

Last month, the leaders of the agencies sent a letter to Barnes challenging the reductions, which OPM has called “holdbacks” - generic savings included in the new state budget. The officials argued that a 2004 state law, passed to protect the agencies’ independence, barred a governor from cutting their budgets. While they hadn’t challenged Malloy’s authority to make similar cuts in the past because of the state’s financial problems, the officials argued “the watchdogs simply cannot endure” the additional reductions, saying they risked their mandated missions.

Barnes sent a letter on Aug 2 rejecting their “interpretation of the statutory language” and noting how the agencies “were not unfairly or disproportionately targeted.”

Colleen Murphy, executive director of the FOI commission, said she was relieved by Barnes’ latest decision to release $44,442 to her agency.

“We’re not in immediate jeopardy of having to lay off people,” she said, noting how she had already laid off two attorneys at the end of the last fiscal year. The office has a staff of 13 people now.

“That would have been the only way we could have made it through the fiscal year with that kind of cut,” she said.

Murphy said she has feared that additional reductions would prevent her office from meeting its statutory deadline of hearing and deciding cases within one year. If that deadline is missed, the person who filed an FOI complaint loses their rights. Carol Carson, executive director of the Office of State Ethics, warned further cuts could jeopardize their mission, which includes enforcing ethics codes for lobbyists and state officials.

Both Murphy and Carson said the watchdog agencies agreed to continue looking for ways to save money and to return any leftover funds to the state’s main spending account at the end of the year.

OPM’s decision to release the funds comes days after Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, asked Attorney General George Jepsen for a formal opinion on whether Malloy had the legal authority to hold back the money. Fasano said Friday he was glad Malloy now realizes “how absurd and inappropriate” his cuts to the watchdogs were.

Fasano said he will no longer pursue a formal opinion but plans to consider legislation in the new session that strengthens the 2004 law.

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