Budget crisis enters race for secretary of the state

The secretary of the state is Connecticut’s chief elections official and business record-keeper, but it’s the state budget crisis that’s seeping into this fall’s campaigns for that office.

Jerry Farrell Jr., the GOP nominee and commissioner of the state Department of Consumer Protection unveiled a new radio ad recently claiming he “returned” $500,000 of his operating budget last fiscal year — a claim that specifically helped him receive four newspaper endorsements.

But Democratic candidate Denise W. Merrill is crying foul, arguing the savings stems from cuts mandated in spring 2009 by the legislature and Gov. M. Jodi Rell, and that those sacrifices were demanded of more than 80 other departments, agencies, higher education units, offices and commissions.

Meanwhile, Merrill, who has led the House majority caucus for the past two years, is finding the $3.3 billion budget deficit that’s been left for the next legislature and governor to solve has come back to confront her in this campaign.

“Last year my office returned a half million dollars of our operating budget. As secretary of the state, I will run this office for less too, and I will lead other state agencies to cut spending,” Farrell said in a new ad.

The legislature included a $12.07 million budget for consumer protection within the $18.64 billion budget for 2009-10 — with several key caveats.

Farrell said his department actually spent $10.17 million, or about $1.9 million less.

But according to budget records, the Rell administration withheld $1.3 million from consumer protection to meet savings targets mandated by the legislature for two reasons:

  • A May 2009 concession package from state labor unions ordered a wage freeze, furloughs, and a retirement incentive program.
  • The administration also was charged with finding more than $473 million in total savings among all agencies in 10 different categories, including salaries, benefits, contracts, information technology costs, and other expenses.

The governor also cut $250,005 from the department’s budget as part of a broader rescission of state government spending to close a deficit, according to her budget office.

The remainder, about $300,000, was returned by Farrell’s agency at year’s end.

Farrell “has presented this as something he achieved on his own, voluntarily,” Merrill said. “These savings were required, we spelled out where they had to come from, and virtually all agencies were told to do this by the legislature.”

But Farrell insists that he deserves the credit for more than the savings his department returned, and therefore listed a larger number in the ad.

  • About $137,550 withheld by the administration to meet a savings mandate for contracts was handled smoothly, Farrell said, because of changes he ordered to the computer licensing system.
  • And Farrell also said two mid-level clerical positions had been subjected to an Executive Branch-wide hiring freeze ordered by Rell in 2008, saving $141,243 last fiscal year. But he added he had no plans to fill them regardless of the freeze.

“I was the one who said to (the administration) that we could achieve these two savings,” he said. “Were these all sexy, big-time items? No. But these efficiencies didn’t just come out of the air.”

Farrell conceded he returned $300,000 to the state’s coffers at year’s end, not the $500,000 claimed in the commercial, but added he was responsible for more than $580,000 in agency savings.

And though many other agencies were required to live with similar budget reductions, Farrell added that he welcomed the opportunity. “Other commissioners were pulling out their hair,” he said.

“At the end of the day, I think most people would agree that we can’t sustain the level of government that we have now,” Farrell said, adding that the state budget crisis is a fair topic of discussion in the race for secretary of the state, regardless of Merrill’s objections.

House majority leader since November 2006,  Merrill and other Democratic lawmakers have spent much of the past two years locking horns with Rell, a Republican, over how to close the state budget deficit.

Though many Democrats favor higher income tax rates on the wealthy, Rell offered major cuts to state social services and health care programs.

The compromise was more than $2.5 billion worth of spending for ongoing programs in the current budget backed by one-time revenues, such as the emergency reserve funds, federal stimulus grants and borrowing.

The Norwich Bulletin was one of the four papers to endorse Farrell, and editorial page editor Ray Hackett referred to Merrill as the “microcosm of irresponsibility” in one column.

Merrill, one of the legislature’s most vocal advocates for a more progressive state income tax, said she argued repeatedly against the one-time solutions. Still, she conceded Tuesday that the approval of more than $950 million in borrowing for this year, to be paid off with a new surcharge on utility bills, was a big mistake.

“I thought the borrowing was probably one of the worst things we could have done,” said Merrill, whose frequently mantra during budget debates was the warning: “there are worse things than tax increases.”