Legislators: No more blank check for college presidents

The presidents of the state's public colleges may soon be required to report how they are spending the thousands of dollars they receive each year to cover their job-related travel and entertainment expenses.

The legislature's Higher Education Committee Tuesday unanimously approved a bill that would require the 19 presidents at the state's public colleges and universities to provide receipts for where the money was spent.

Cassano, Steve

Sen. Cassano: 'There have got to be limits on the perks that we offer people in addition to their exorbitant salaries.'

"There have got to be limits on the perks that we offer people in addition to their exorbitant salaries. It's insulting to taxpayers, and, quite frankly, I was insulted to even hear about it. So we're ending it," Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, said after the vote.

The vote comes four months after officials at the state's largest college system said the former president had incorrectly billed the Board of Regents for expenses like the satellite radio in the vehicle he was provided, gas and tolls in addition to his $25,000 unvouchered expense account.

While Robert Kennedy resigned last winter following a series of embarrassing controversies, several state university and community college presidents remain employed with similar benefits.

The Board of Regents this year will spend $153,000 handing out blank checks to 15 of its college and university presidents, which does not include the $25,000 Kennedy returned after resigning.

The president's contract at the University of Connecticut requires that she receive a "reasonable sum" to cover her travel and university-related entertainment expenses. A spokeswoman for the system said receipts are required before the president, staff or any UConn employee is reimbursed, and the proposed bill would not have an effect on the university.

These university expenses come on top of the public institutions' in many cases covering housing expenses, providing a vehicle and awarding performance bonuses after job evaluations. Several requests by The Mirror, starting last fall, for the evaluation of Kennedy that prompted his $25,000 performance bonus were denied.

Officials with the Malloy administration, who negotiated Kennedy's contract, have said the benefits awarded to the system's president in a 2011 contract was typical of those given nationally.

But Sen. Beth Bye, the co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, said she was "shocked" and "speechless" when she learned about the benefits and the unaccounted-for account.

"I'm as stunned today as I was three months ago when I found out about that account," the West Hartford Democrat said in a statement. "I vowed then we would fix this terrible practice. It's unfair."

Her co-chair had the same reaction.

"What do you mean you got $25,000 and didn't have to provide any receipts? Unbelievable," Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, said of her reaction at the time.

The 12 community college presidents receive a $6,500 unvouchered account each year on top of their salary, that hovers around $200,000, and a $5,798 car allowance. The presidents of Eastern, Western and Central receive a $25,000 unvouchered account on top of their salaries, that are approximately $330,000. Southern's president receives a $35,000-a-year housing allowance.

"The public has a right to know how every dollar is being spent," said Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, a member on the committee.

Cassano, vice chairman of the Higher Education Committee, said a "pot of money like this with no accountability" is "completely unacceptable."

The leaders of the state's Freedom of Information Commission also support the bill.

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Rep. Willis, House chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee: 'What do you mean you got $25,000 and didn't have to provide any receipts?'

"The FOI Commission believes strongly that government expenditures, including compensation and reimbursements paid to top officials in the Connecticut State University system, are clearly of public concern (especially during a period of fiscal crisis in the state) and deserve public scrutiny," Colleen Murphy, the executive director told the committee last week.

The bill now awaits a vote by the General Assembly. If it becomes law, presidents will be required to document their spending beginning next fiscal year.

The special panel the Board of Regents created in the wake of the public outrage of the raises the former president awarded central office staff has not yet weighed in on the use of these unvouchered accounts. During the Committee on Administration's most recent meeting, the regents on the panel said they plan to take up the issue in future meetings.

"The committee has begun moving forward with a review and benchmarking of administrative salaries against those at peer higher education institutions and statewide systems, and will be starting phase two of that work later this week. The Board is supportive of measures like these, which address administrative issues to help provide more accountability on behalf of the state's taxpayers," said regents spokeswoman Colleen Flanagan Johnson.

The committee on Tuesday also approved a bill aimed at creating legislative oversight of the administrative costs of the public institutions. The bill, also unanimously approved, would require public colleges and universities to regularly report to lawmakers how the salaries of administrative positions compare to their peer institutions and the student-to-administrator ratio. The U.S. Department of Education reports that UConn spends more on administration than 71 other research colleges and all of their peer institutions.

Follow reporter Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on Twitter @jacquelinerabe

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