Watchdog agencies spared as Malloy nails down budget cuts

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration already has secured one-fifth of this year’s savings called for in the union concession deal–and apparently won’t be trying to take any more funding from Connecticut’s three chief watchdog agencies.

Office of Policy and Management Secretary Benjamin Barnes reported Tuesday that $135 million was withheld from agencies’ budget allotments for July through September–the first quarter of fiscal 2011-12–reflecting savings tied to layoffs, a wage freeze, retirements, benefit restrictions, facility closings and schedule reductions, and other cost-saving initiatives.

Barnes, Malloy’s budget director, also said that while his office hadn’t completed its review of all vacant positions funded in this year’s budget, he anticipates that the Freedom of Information and State Election Enforcement commissions, as well as the Office of State Ethics, would be allowed to fill four budgeted posts that the administration effectively had frozen since July 1.

And when the elections panel’s executive director, Albert Lenge, retires at month’s end, the commission also likely would be allowed to fill his post, Barnes added.

Tuesday’s press conference marked the administration’s first public update on this fiscal year’s $20.14 billion budget since the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition ratified a two-year, $1.6 billion concession package in mid-August.

That package, which is projected to save $700 million in this fiscal year, left the administration with a huge savings target to keep the budget in balance.

Typically, the administration orders “holdbacks,” or reductions each quarter in agency allotments, as various programmatic cuts and other savings are identified.

“Obviously this year the process is even more critical than in most,” Barnes said.

While some of the savings behind that figure is relatively easy to achieve–such as $138 million from a wage freeze–the administration concedes that others will take considerable effort. These include $170 million in total to come from three labor-management panels charged with finding cost-saving ideas in technology, health care and across state government in general.

In addition to the $700 million target, this year’s budget also includes a $112 million general savings target not tied to the concession agreement that the administration also must achieve to keep finances in balance.

Barnes said the administration relied heavily on cost-saving ideas identified earlier this summer by department heads when it appeared that concessions were in jeopardy and that other savings would have to be found.

“We claim no originality here,” he said.

Roughly $80 million of the $135 million in first-quarter savings is tied to personnel, stemming from the wage freeze, reductions in overtime, retirements and layoffs. Bargaining units representing state police and prison guard supervisors refused to accept the wage freeze, and Malloy cut 56 jobs from the former and 21 from the latter.

One of the single-largest savings involves $5.8 million from the planned closure of the Bergin Correctional Institution in Mansfield.

The plan also saves more than $2.4 million by reducing hours of operation in some state buildings, ordering cutbacks in maintenance and security, and canceling leases.

The administration had drawn criticism earlier this summer when it ordered layoffs of non-union personnel at the state’s three chief watchdog agencies, and also refused to allow vacant, budgeted positions to be filled–all while union concessions were in jeopardy.

Those three watchdog groups, along with six others, were merged by the governor and legislature this past spring into a new Office of Governmental Accountability, as state officials struggled to close a built-in shortfall for 2011-12 that once stood as large as $3.67 billion.

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

Even after the concessions were granted, Barnes’ office did not immediately agree to allow restoration of these posts, but rather invited the watchdogs to appeal for their return.

Further complicating matters, watchdog leaders and with some lawmakers noted that seven years ago, at the height of the scandal that drove former Gov. John G. Rowland from office, the legislature legally insulated Connecticut’s FOIC, ethics and elections enforcement from any emergency cuts after the budget had been adopted, arguing this was essential to keep government open and honest.

And unless these agencies were permitted to use budgeted funds to fill vacancies, the spirit of that law–and possibly the letter of it as well–would be violated, critics argued.

“I expect that we will,” allow these three agencies to fill those vacant, budgeted positions, Barnes said. “Obviously they have statutory protections with respect to their budgets that are unusual.”

The vacant positions include communications and technology managers at elections enforcement, an ethics program manager at the Office of State Ethics, and the second-ranking post at FOIC, the managing director and associate general counsel’s job.

The Elections Enforcement Commission also raised concerns recently when Albert P. Lenge, its executive director since October 2009, announced he would retire after Sept. 30.

The commission already lost a high-ranking leadership post that oversees the state election system’s public financing program during the reorganization into the Office of Governmental Accountability.

“If the division is to remain independent, then the absolutely have to have their own executive director appointed by the commission,” Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee said Tuesday.

“The commission should have the right to choose from a full field of capable candidates” for the next director, Lenge said. “I think that’s extremely critical for this commission to maintain its autonomy.”

Slossberg, who was one of those lawmakers who urged Malloy not to lay off workers or freeze posts in those three watchdog agencies, had been a critic of the merger plan adopted this past spring.

Malloy had originally sought a more extreme consolidation plan, which called for one homogenous government watchdog agency performing multiple functions with a director appointed by the governor. Lawmakers instead opted for directing nine watchdog entities to share administrative resources while otherwise preserving their autonomy.

“The statutes are pretty clear about the autonomy of those commissions,” Barnes said Tuesday, adding that he expected the administration would not attempt to block elections officials from filling the vacancy after Lenge retires. “We’ll follow the statute.”