Malloy budget leaves legislative commissions uncertain about the future

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s new budget leaves the state’s six legislative commissions designed to serve specific ethnic and other demographic groups pondering their futures.

While Malloy didn’t recommend any consolidation or elimination of these panels, he said during a recent interview that merging all six into one makes sense.

And while the governor’s budget was required to include the commission’s budget requests — several of which would dramatically increase their funding next fiscal year–Malloy did recommend a new savings target for the Legislative Branch that effectively would eat up most of that potential funding growth.

“I think there’s a better way to do those commissions,” Malloy told The Mirror in an interview last week, referring to the Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission, the Commissions on African American Affairs, Aging, Children and Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs, as well as the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women. “I think that a level of consolidation is highly appropriate.”

But the governor, who inherited a $3 billion-plus deficit built into the next fiscal year, also said that there is merit in the overall missions of each these small offices. And because they are contained within the Legislative Branch, their role in helping to solve Connecticut’s fiscal crisis has to be determined delicately.

“They are legislative commissions. I respect that reality,” he said. “If they asked my advice, I’d consolidate a bunch of them.”

Because these agencies lie outside of the Executive Branch, Malloy was required by law to report their respective budget requests without adjustment in the $19.74 billion overall state budget for 2011-12 he recommended to the legislature earlier this month.

Five of the six commissions requested significant increases, including:

  • 317 percent for the Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission, from $52,310 to $218,135.
  • 94.5 percent for the Commission on Aging, from $256,071 to $498,000.
  • 65.3 percent for the African American Affairs Commission, from $212,236 to $351,002.
  • 37.5 percent for the Commission on Children, from $530,420 to $729,408.
  • 16.5 percent for the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, from $505,420 to $589,223.

Most of these requests are designed to mitigate major budget cuts the offices absorbed in 2009 and 2010.

The Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission sought a relatively modest 1 percent increase, from $319, 791 to $323,415.

Though Malloy was required to include their budget requests as submitted, he also could have included his own commentary recommending any other changes, such as the merger he suggested in last week’s interview or the outright elimination of all six panels that his predecessor, M. Jodi Rell, proposed one year ago.

Malloy did propose, however, that the Legislative Branch be assigned a $3.6 million in “lapse” targets, referring to savings to be achieved throughout the fiscal year. That burden would be spread among the six specialty agencies as well as legislative management and other support staff.

So for the Asian-Pacific American community — which insists a commission with an annual budget of at least $200,000 is necessary for a fully functioning office – and for the other specialty commissions hoping to return to pre-2009 funding status, is the fiscal glass half empty, or half full, in the Malloy budget?

“It really wouldn’t give us what we need to be on par with the others,” Nakul M. Havnurkar of Hartford, the Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission’s legislative liaison, and sole employee, said Monday.

Havnurkar, 25, a 2010 graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Law, technically has a desk, a phone line, and permission to use the printer within the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission office on Trinity Street. “But I spend most of my time camped out in the Legislative Office Building,” carrying his laptop and cell phone with him so he can conduct commission business while staying available to meet with legislators.

For the last three years, members of Connecticut’s Asian-Pacific community have fought to create a fully funded state agency to serve a constituency advocates argue is growing too quickly to ignore. Legislation creating the commission received strong bipartisan support in 2008, but its budget was never fully funded as the state struggled through the recession.

Havnurkar, who recently has assisted lawmakers in developing legislation to guarantee in-state tuition rates to all undocumented graduates of public high schools in Connecticut, said this and other projects are conducted simultaneously with an ongoing effort to gain equal financial footing with the other specialty commissions.

Toward that end, the key for Havnurkar and for advocates of the other commissions might be to convince lawmakers simply to spare them from the heft savings targets Malloy is seeking.

Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said that while her panel can’t make any fiscal promises right now given the deficit it faces, all six groups have demonstrated the value of the work they do.

“By and large I think they all contribute to their communities,” she said, adding they have been particularly responsive to the legislature’s push for results-based accounting. “They are setting and achieving goals and outcomes. They really have sharpened their focus. I think it is important for all of these groups to remain visible and have a voice to comment on the policies of the state.”

But Rep. Craig A. Miner of Litchfield, ranking House Republican on Appropriations, said “I think these commissions fit nicely with a lot of consolidations,” adding that many programs of merit may be subjected to cuts. “I think the state has to be willing to consider all sorts of things we haven’t done historically.”