Fate of legislature’s investigative arm hangs on budget battle

The fate of the legislature’s chief investigative arm probably will be determined in the next few weeks as top leaders decide whether to impose a cut that would chop the nonpartisan agency in half.

Meanwhile, the House’s longest-serving current member, Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, insists House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey’s office assured her the planned reduction to the Program Review and Investigation Committee staff would be significantly muted — in exchange for her support for the new state budget.

Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford

Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford

But the speaker, who is retiring after this year, said last week his office never made that pledge. And while he said he would try, nonetheless, to ease the fiscal pain, it is doubtful that several of the 12 positions in the investigative office won’t be eliminated.

And hanging in the balance are ongoing and planned studies on: school desegregation efforts; long-term care services; substance abuse prevention services; the state’s handling of discrimination complaints; and use of the Hartford-Brainard Airport site.

Passing up on big savings?

“How does silencing the state’s efficiency experts help the state adjust to less revenues and a leaner government?” Mushinsky wrote in a recent op-ed piece.

The Wallingford lawmaker was referring to the major deficit forecasts that continue to plague state finances. Those are the product of rapidly escalating retirement benefit and other debt costs analysts project will dominate state finances potentially for the next two decades.

During the last recession, program review staff recommended changes involving prescription drug purchasing, and transitioning more nursing home patients into home care that saved just over $200 million in 2010 and 2011 combined, according to the nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis.

A former co-chairwoman of the Program Review and Investigations Committee, Mushinsky remains the highest-ranking House Democrat on the panel and first was elected to the legislature in 1980.

“How could anyone think cutting this team is a logical decision?” Mushinsky said, adding that she believes the full cut would decimate the legislature’s crucial ability to conduct investigations and evaluate programs.

Leaders: Tough budget cuts had to be made

But leaders of the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate say it’s not that simple, particularly when it comes to balancing a budget.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature struggled to eliminate a nearly $1 billion hole in the 2016-17 fiscal year without raising taxes. And the $19.76 billion budget they enacted funds most departments and agencies below the level originally promised for that fiscal year.

When Sharkey and Looney announced a tentative budget agreement with the Malloy administration during the waning hours of the regular legislative session in early May, one of the cuts they announced was $750,000 to be achieved by eliminating half of the program review office’s 12 jobs.

Both Sharkey and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said they highly value program review’s work.

But they also felt the legislative branch’s portion of the budget — albeit a small one — should sacrifice in the same way the rest of state government was.

House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey talks to reporters Tuesday.

Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org file photo

House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey

“You don’t want to lose good people, but that’s true throughout state government,” said Sharkey, a former co-chair of program review who oversaw a major study that led to reform of Connecticut’s probate court system.

Looney noted that program review has a specialized function, generally studying an issue over a year or two, then working with legislators to develop a handful of reform bills. Other legislative offices involved with research, bill drafting, fiscal analysis, or technical support, are more directly involved in the legislature’s day-to-day functions.

“I did not want to make cuts that would devastate the operations” of these other support services, Looney said. “All of these choices are very, very difficult.”

The Republican minorities in the House and Senate had recommended cutting the entire program review operation in an alternative budget plan.

Sharkey also noted that while program review is small, its staff salaries are among the highest in the legislative branch.

Program review, which spent about $1.4 million last fiscal year, has one director, 10 analyst posts, and one administrative assistant.

Carrie E. Vibert, director of the program review office, earns $196,107 per year. The annual salaries for the nine analysts — one post is vacant — range from $86,040 to $140,697, and the administrative assistant earns $48,519.

But program review analysts don’t have a higher pay scale than those performing legal or fiscal analysis in other legislative support offices. The higher pay comes from, on average, more years of job experience than analysts in other offices.

Vibert referred all questions to committee leadership.

Legislators fought for investigative authority

Mushinsky said program review’s value has gone beyond the dollars for decades.

The General Assembly created its own program review staff in 1972 over the objections — and veto — of Gov. Thomas J. Meskill, who argued this was an infringement upon the Executive Branch’s authority.

The committee was given authority to conduct investigations and issue subpoenas three years later, and by 1985 it was authorized to raise bills to modify government agency practices.

It has issued several high-profile reports during its tenure.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney

The legislature enacted several reforms to help businesses maneuver through the state’s environmental regulations and licensing practices after a 1998 program review analysis.

Several recommendations from a 2012 and 2014 study of substance abuse treatment policies and mental health parity issues were incorporated into the legislature’s first response to the December 2012 shooting of 26 students and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

And a 2014 report identified several improper practices at the state veterans’ home in Rocky Hill, including security personnel acting outside of their authority.

Mushinsky: Holding leaders to their word

Mushinsky informed Sharkey shortly before the May 12-13 special session to adopt the new budget, that she would oppose the measure because of the program review cut.

“I told them I’m not going to fire all of those people,” she told The Mirror last week.

Technically, all legislative support offices share one line item in the budget. And Mushinsky said the speaker’s staff responded to her concerns by assuring her that a new deal had been struck with Senate Democratic leadership. The $750,000 cut would be taken in small amounts from throughout the entire legislative branch budget with one exception: partisan staff assigned to the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate wouldn’t be touched.

The Democrat-controlled House narrowly passed the budget by a vote of 74-70.

“Now I’m getting that the Senate is backing off of this promise,” Mushinsky said, adding she expects the deal to be honored.

But Looney said Senate Democrats never agreed to this broader budget-cutting alternative, offering only to discuss options to mitigate the reductions to program review after the budget was adopted.

Looney said his staff indicated “we could have a conversation at that point,” but there was no commitment beyond that.

Sharkey: A misunderstanding

Sharkey said last week that Looney’s description of the agreement is correct, and that there was a misunderstanding between his staff and Mushinsky.

Meanwhile, the new fiscal year began on July 1, and the Office of Legislative Management, which oversees all legislative support functions, hasn’t ordered layoffs at program review or imposed cuts in other legislative support services, while awaiting directions from Sharkey and Looney.

The speaker, who spoke Thursday with The Mirror, acknowledged he was behind schedule addressing this matter, and said he had spoken with Looney that same day about some alternative cuts.

“I am sympathetic to the notion that we shouldn’t decimate PRI,” Sharkey said, adding that “I believe he (Looney) is committed to finding some alternative solutions” to cut legislative spending.

But Sharkey declined to estimate how many program review positions might be spared, adding it was likely some jobs would have to be eliminated there.

Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, co-chair of the Program Review and Investigations Committee, said he understands the bind legislative leadership is in.

Not only does the committee perform a specialized role — rather than one that affects legislative functions on a daily basis — but its work requires a significant investment of time.

Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford

CTMirror.org file photo

Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford

With other offices “their information is immediate, whereas with program review it’s months and months,” Fonfara said. “And it’s not that it’s not valuable. It is.”

Mushinsky suggested that program review’s role might be modified if staffing were preserved, assigning it — at least temporarily — to investigations and studies focused solely on governmental efficiency and cost-cutting issues.

But both Sharkey and Fonfara said that there are no guarantees, regardless of whether the office’s recommendations save dollars, that the legislature will implement them.

Program review staff identified close to $400 million in estimated annual cost savings during the last recession, but many of those ideas weren’t implemented.

Still, Mushinsky said the committee’s track-record is proven, regardless of whether legislators embraced its recommendations or not.

“I am just dumbfounded,” she said. “This is the time we need all of those people.”

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