Elections watchdogs fear they lack resources to monitor public campaign grants

The state’s clean elections watchdog agency warned Wednesday that while it has enough funding to provide public grants for this fall’s state elections, it lacks the resources to monitor how candidates qualify for and spend the money.

Though a final report hasn’t been completed yet, the State Elections Enforcement Commission expects to notify lawmakers later this month that the Citizens’ Election Fund has sufficient dollars to provide public grants to interested state legislative candidates this summer and fall, the commission’s new executive director, Michael J. Brandi, told the Appropriations Committee.

“The bad news is the funding cannot be distributed properly unless we have the staff to do so,” Brandi quickly added.

When the legislature and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy agreed last spring to roll elections enforcement and eight other watchdogs into the new Office of Governmental Accountability, they also reduced staffing for the commission from 53 to 34 positions.

That reduction was offset in part by a new system office within the OGA that provides certain business services to all nine member watchdog divisions.

But both Brandi — who was named the commission’s new executive director earlier this month — and commission Chairman Stephen F. Cashman, said that isn’t enough to overcome a 36 percent reduction in staff.

Included in that downsizing is a reduction from 11 to five among staff who will monitor candidates’ use public election grants, Brandi said.

While Malloy and lawmakers reduced the number of auditors, they also reduced the number of election grant audits that must be conducted.

Legislation enacted last spring 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.

But what has gotten less attention, Cashman said, is that the reduced staffing also means audits of how candidates spend public grants also will be scaled back. “The reality is they are far less intrusive, far less in-depth” than those conducted before last spring’s changes.

A crucial management post also has been vacant since March 2011. “Although the position is clearly mission critical, we still have not been granted permission to fill it,” Brandi said.

“This comes as no surprise to those of us who have been raising the alarm bells about the huge cuts election enforcement has taken this year,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, vice president of state operations for the national office of Common Cause, a Washington, D.C.-based clean elections advocacy group.

“There is no excuse for any (elections enforcement) positions to be in limbo. The governor, the legislative leaders, all say they care about this program. They need to restore these positions.”

The Malloy administration has been forced to rely more heavily than expected on freezing vacated state jobs to control labor costs as other components of last year’s union concessions package haven’t cut expenses as projected. Labor-management efficiency panels charged with finding $170 million in annual savings got off to a slow start, and cost-cutting expected from a new employee wellness program also has been scaled back.

Though no incentives were paid to encourage retirements, the concessions deal did impose several new restrictions on retirement benefits starting in October 2011. Administration officials have said that about 700 employees retire in a typical year, and that they expected an extra 1,000 would step down because of the benefits changes in the concession deal.

But actual numbers far exceeded expectations, with nearly 2,700 workers deciding between January and October 2011 to retire.

This fiscal year’s $20.14 billion state budget faces a $145 million deficit, according to the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, though the administration reports it is $1.4 million in the black.

Also according to the administration, the governor’s $20.7 billion plan for 2012-13 is balanced in the first year, but faces a $424 million deficit and would exceed the constitutional spending cap by $650 million by 2013-14. Malloy’s budget director, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Benjamin Barnes, has said the administration will find sufficient spending cuts to eliminate both problems one year from now. Barnes could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

Further complicating matters for the elections enforcement panel, its much larger staff needed an average of 400 hours of overtime to administer public campaign finances in the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, Brandi said. And the $3 million Malloy recommended last week for the commission in his revised budget for 2012-13 cuts $42,497 from the allocation originally approved for the agency last spring.

“The facts are stark,” Brandi said, adding that the agency lacks the resources to cover its overtime costs, even if it could convince the remaining Citizens’ Election Program staff to work all evenings and weekend days. “There’s still not enough hours in the day to complete what we did in 2008 and 2010. The math simply doesn’t work. … We’re looking at significant, significant overtime that’s going to be required.”

Brandi said he is searching for solutions, but additional resources are essential. “We will find every way we can to do this, but we are going to need support from the legislature,” he said.

“You got any brothers and sisters available?” Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, jokingly asked Brandi, adding that her panel, which will issue its own budget proposal for 2012-13 in late March, would revisit the issue. “We need to probably have another conversation.”