CT legislature’s chief investigative panel to lose all staff

House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey talks to reporters Tuesday.

Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org file photo

House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey

State legislative leaders have eliminated the General Assembly’s chief investigative arm, reassigning most of the Program Review and Investigations Committee’s 11-member staff to other duties in coming months.

The committee was established 44 years ago over the veto of then-Gov. Thomas Meskill.

The Office of Legislative Management notified staffers today of several changes, including:

  • Longtime Director Carrie Vibert will retire. Vibert served 34 years in the office, including the last 12 as director.
  • Five committee analysts will go to the Auditors of Public Accounts office.
  • Four other analysts and an administrative assistant will be reassigned to other legislative support offices.
  • A 12th position in the program review office, an additional analyst post, has been and will remain vacant.

The transition is expected to occur over the next few months as program review staff work to complete studies already in progress, involving: long-term care services, substance abuse prevention services, the state’s handling of discrimination complaints, and use of the Hartford-Brainard Airport site.

The moves cap months of negotiations over the program review office between leaders of the Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate.

The $19.76 billion state budget enacted in May for the 2016-17 fiscal year includes a vague directive that the Legislative Branch achieve $750,000 in savings. Democratic leaders initially announced it would be achieved by eliminating six of the 12 program review staff posts.

Rep. Mary Mushinsky

CTMirror.org file photo

Rep. Mary Mushinsky, center

But Rep. Mary Mushinksy, D-Wallingford — the current House’s longest-serving member and the ranking Democratic representative on program review — threatened to vote against the budget to protest that plan.

Mushinksy ultimately voted for the budget, which narrowly passed 74-70, explaining on the House floor that Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey’s office had assured her the planned staff reduction would be significantly muted — in exchange for her support for the budget.

But the speaker, who is retiring after this year, said last month his office never made that pledge, but that it would try to find an alternative.

That alternative, ultimately, was to eliminate the committee’s staff but let most of them remain in state employment.

Mushinsky could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

“We are dealing with budget reductions across state government, and the legislative branch is no exception,” Sharkey wrote in a statement Wednesday. “As a former chair of program review, I have an acute understanding of the scope and workings of the committee, and personally believed their function would best be absorbed as part of our legislative research office. Others felt program review was best suited under the purview of our state auditors, and there is merit to that perspective as well.”

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, whose office negotiated the program review reassignments with the speaker’s office, could not be reached for comment.

Mushinsky has argued it was a huge mistake to gut program review staff while state government is grappling with increasing budget deficits. Those are the product of rapidly escalating retirement benefit and other debt costs, and  analysts project they will dominate state finances, potentially for the next two decades.

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

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.

But legislative leaders have said tough fiscal decisions had to be made.

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.

Sharkey and Looney said they value the program review office’s work but they also felt the legislative branch’s portion of the budget — albeit a small one — should sacrifice in the same way as the rest of state government.

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

Besides Vibert’s retirement and the vacant analyst post already in program review, the legislature also will save money through some of the reassignments. Several of the program review staff moving into legislative support offices will go into vacant posts there that were budgeted for and scheduled to be filled this fiscal year.

Still, there is another fiscal hurdle remaining to be cleared in the legislature’s budget.

A plan to shift responsibility for managing the Old State House from the legislature’s portion of the budget to the executive branch’s — to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection — was scrapped in early August. Public criticism rose sharply after DEEP announced it lacked sufficient funds to manage the building and would have to close the building to the public and remove all art and other antiquities kept there to protect them.

The legislative branch spent about $900,000 on management of the Old State House last fiscal year, but lawmakers and the governor gave DEEP just $400,000 to do the job.

The Malloy administration and the Office of Legislative Management still are negotiating new management plans for the Old State House.

The General Assembly created its own program review staff in 1972 over the objections — and veto — of 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.

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 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.