Warnings escalate over funding for Clean Elections

The state’s election cops intensified their warning to legislators Friday that their ability to oversee public campaign financing this fall is in jeopardy from deep budget cuts.

The State Elections Enforcement Commission needs nearly double its existing contingent of account examiners if it hopes to monitor a projected caseload that includes nearly 340 campaign grants and more than 135,500 contributors, Executive Director Michael Brandi told an Appropriations Committee working group.

But even if the commission receives the extra resources, it still would tackle the 2012 state elections with less staffing that it had to monitor public financing in 2010 and 2008.

“We cannot get through the Citizens’ Election Program and the next campaign without more help,” Brandi told the working group that is developing budget plans for Connecticut’s watchdog agencies for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The full Appropriations Committee is expected to release its budget proposal for 2012-13 in early April.

Brandi warned lawmakers earlier this month that his agency lacks the resources to monitor how candidates qualify for and spend the money. And on Friday, he put a price tag on what’s needed to make the program work — but only after the clock put a limit on an alternative solution.

Brandi noted that the commission spent $28,000 on overtime to ensure that public campaign financing grants were processed on time and monitored properly during the 2008 state legislative elections.

Two years later, with races for both the legislature and state constitutional offices at stake, it cost $31,500 in staff overtime to get the job done.

Over the last year, though, the commission’s campaign disclosure unit has been severely cut, reduced from 11 staffers to five. And the number of account examiners, who perform the bulk of the work necessary to process public campaign grants — including reviewing tens of thousands of documents — was cut from eight to four.

Brandi said that as his office began calculating how much overtime it would need to handle the 2012 legislative elections with reduced staff, it stopped at $65,150, but not because the price was too high.

“We actually ran out of hours in the day,” he said, adding that even if staff could be forced to work 24 hours daily, it wouldn’t be enough to process all applications on time.

Brandi told lawmakers Friday that the commission needs three more account examiners. Funding for those positions and for some additional overtime would cost about $310,000 more than the $1 million allocation Gov. Dannel P. Malloy recommended for the agency earlier this month.

But Rep. Billie Miller, D-Stamford, co-chairwoman of the working group, said that while Brandi’s warning “is a concern with the elections coming up,” it is one of many tough funding requests legislators must consider in a challenging budget year.

The commission was one of nine watchdog agencies subjected to budget cuts last year and merged into a new Office of Governmental Accountability as part of a much larger plan to close one of the largest budget deficits in state history.

And though that gap, once projected to be as high as $3.67 billion, has been closed, the current budget is headed for a shortfall between $44 million and $161 million, according to the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis.

That means agencies will continue to be asked to manage with fewer resources, Miller said. “The whole point of the consolidation was to reduce staff,” she said. “The OGA (consolidation) exists and we’re going to have to make it work. It’s not going to go away.”