Election cops take the biggest hit in agency consolidation

Just a week after the Malloy Administration effortlessly filled a $400-million gap in the biennial budget, the state’s watchdog agencies were slashed Wednesday in a consolidation that saves a relatively modest $3.3 million in the next two years.

Senate Democrats gave final legislative approval Wednesday to a budget bill that cuts the staffs of the three biggest watchdogs by about one-third and ends mandatory audits of publicly-financed legislative campaigns.

The State Elections Enforcement Commission, which has clashed with legislators over campaign audits, suffered the biggest hit, losing 37 percent of its 52 authorized positions. The staffs of the Freedom of Information Commission and Office of State Ethics will shrink by 35 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

“For a minute amount of money to be saved out of the state budget, in the end I fear we have made the watchdogs far weaker and made it much harder for them to do their job,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, vice president of Common Cause.

On Friday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy recommended that lawmakers significantly reduce the surplus already built into the next two fiscal years to close a $400 million gap left by a concession-and-labor savings deal that fell short of the governor’s $2 billion goal.

Some of the staff reductions in the watchdog agencies will be offset by the consolidation of some administrative functions as nine separate entities are brought under the umbrella of a new Office of Government Accountability.

Malloy proposed the changes in February as he outlined his plans to erase what then was estimated at a $3.5 billion deficit for the coming fiscal year, the biggest per-capita deficit of any state.

“There are difficult decisions. There are difficult spending cuts. There are difficult tax increases,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor’s senior adviser. “That’s what happens when you have a $3.5 billion deficit.”

Occhiogrosso said the changes are meant to make government “more efficient and cost effective.”

“In the perfect world, would this restructuring have occurred in this fashion?” Occhiogrosso said. “Probably not. But we don’t live in a perfect world.”

Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, said the reduction in resources and a consolidation that he says undermines the agencies’ independence are ill-considered.

“When you are talking about the integrity of government, the freedom of people to get information from government, the protection of our ethical standards, the cleanliness of our elections, to me that should be solely independent to as much of a degree as possible,” he said. “And that s not what the governor’s recommended.”

Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, the co-chairwoman of the Government Administrations and Elections Committee, joined the Republican minority in voting for amendments that would have undone some of the changes. She also voted against the bill. The final vote was 21 to 14.

“I just think that the proposal in front of us undermines the independence and the integrity of the watchdog agencies,” Slossberg said.

Hobert Flynn, the Common Cause executive who worked with Democratic legislators to craft the public financing law passed during a special session in 2005, said Malloy and the legislature did abandon some of the more draconian changes of earlier versions.

Malloy’s original plan would have stripped the commissions of all autonomy, including a hard-won ability to submit their budget proposals to the legislature without interference from the executive branch.

Changes apparently drafted by legislators–the authors never stepped forward–would have stripped the State Elections Enforcement Commission of its investigators and audit staff.

“We’ve come a long way. We’ve come a long way from elections enforcement being spread among three agencies,” Hobert Flynn said. “But at the end of the day, we will have to keep a close eye on whether the watchdogs truly remain independent.”

The bill leaves the commission with the authority to audit every statewide campaign, but its audits of legislative races will be limited to random audits. No more than half the races will be examined in any year.

It also cuts the terms of the elections commissioners from five to three years and bars them from serving consecutive terms–a move critics said would give staff too much influence over inexperienced commission members.