Agency head: Malloy’s undermining watchdogs’ fiscal autonomy

The state’s watchdog agencies were promised fiscal autonomy when they were merged last month into the Office of Government Accountability, but one agency head is complaining that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy overstepped his authority by naming an acting director to cut OGA’s budget.

Carol Carson, executive director of the division of state ethics within the new Office of Government Accountability, objected to Malloy’s naming of an acting executive director of the new OGA to help determine how a $1.61 million budget cut will be apportioned among OGA’s nine divisions.

“I don’t think the governor has the authority to do this,” Carson wrote in a July 5 email sent to the other eight watchdog divisions as well as to key lawmakers.

The new legislation merging the nine groups to share personnel, payroll, affirmative action and administration and business functions reserves each individual division’s control over “budgetary issues and concerning the employment of necessary staff to carry out the statutory duties.”

Besides ethics, other divisions within the new OGA are: the Freedom of Information Commission; the State Elections Enforcement Commission; the Office of the Victim Advocate; the Office of the Child Advocate; the Judicial Selection Commission and Review Council; the State Contracting Standards Board; and the Board of Firearms Permit Examiners.

The new statute also sets up a Government Accountability Commission with representatives from all nine divisions and gives that panel authority to recommend three or more candidates for the new executive director’s post. The governor must appoint a director from that list and the statute only allows him to appoint an acting director “If the Governmental Accountability Commission has not submitted such list to the governor on or before August 1, 2011.”

Carson added in her email that “until such hiring occurs, I think the Governmental Accountability Commission … could just as easily oversee the few issues arising.”

One issue that arose last week was a decision by the General Assembly to expand the governor’s emergency budgetary authority in light of the concession deal rejected by unionized state employees. That agreement was expected to save $700 million in the fiscal year that began July 1 and another $901 million in 2012-13.

Malloy’s budget agency, the Office of Policy and Management, assigned savings targets last week to cover the gaps and recommended a total of 7,675 position cuts spread across more than 50 departments. OPM assigned the Office of Government Accountability to save $1.61 million this fiscal year and recommended 16 position cuts to help achieve that.

OPM Secretary Benjamin Barnes, Malloy’s budget director, notified departments and agencies last week that they could offer proposals to mitigate the need for job cuts, but those plans must be developed quickly because the administration must submit final details of its budget-balancing program to the legislature by July 15.

The governor named Karen Buffkin, OPM undersecretary for legal affairs, to serve as acting executive director and work with the divisions to divide the cuts. “Please assume the authority, responsibilities and duties of said position in an acting capacity effective July 1, 2011,” the governor wrote in his June 30 appointment letter.

Barnes said Thursday that “we were not attempting to overstep our authority,” and pledged that Buffkin’s role “is a coordinating one, a facilitating one” and would work with — not dictate to — the watchdog divisions.

The divisions already faced cuts in staff and dollars in the new budget before additional reductions were ordered in connection with the failed concessions deal. And Barnes said the administration wanted “to ensure that they come up with realistic savings plans that meet our overall goals and protect their specific constituent groups.”

Rep. Russell Morin, D-Wethersfield, co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said he would ask administration officials for more details, adding that “I share many of the concerns” Carson raised in her email. “We wrote that legislation with the intent of giving them control over their own budgets. … I’m not making any assumptions, but I want to get to the bottom of this.”

The panel’s other co-chair, Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, opposed the plan to merge the watchdog groups, but said Thursday that “my sense is that the governor’s intent was to appoint somebody to help. I don’t agree with this new structure, but somebody has to facilitate this.”