NEW HAVEN — Connecticut’s gubernatorial candidates split Monday over how to make the environmental watchdog process more efficient without putting the state’s populace and natural resources at risk.

During a Yale University forum sponsored by the Connecticut Fund for the Environment and nearly a dozen other environmental advocacy groups, Democrat Dan Malloy stopped short of pledging more staff for the Department of Environmental Protection, but questioned whether it could improve responsiveness with current employee levels.

Governor enviro forum

Foley, Marsh and Malloy: Is DEP staffing adequate? (Keith M. Phaneuf)

Meanwhile, both Republican Tom Foley and Independent Party nominee Tom Marsh said they believe that with appropriate leadership, the DEP could do its job with staffing at current levels or below.

The format for Monday’s forum, which took place before about 150 guests in the university’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, also pressed the candidates about clean energy, brownfield remediation, open space preservation and clean water issues.

“Whatever we do (with the DEP) has to address appropriate levels of staffing,” Malloy said, adding that while Connecticut’s next governor must improve the agency’s ability to process permit applications in an efficient and timely manner, there are complaints within the department that it lacks sufficient staff to do so now.

The DEP, which has been overseen by Republican governors since 1995, has been “purposely underfunded” for years, Malloy said, adding this problem cannot be ignored in the quest to create new jobs.

“It’s fundamentally important that we hold ourselves to high standards, and timeliness is one of those standards,” he said, adding that state government needs to focus on creating jobs and operating government more efficiently. “We have to understand that all of the things we want to do in Connecticut … are going to require that we change how we do business, but not that we sacrifice the environment.”

But Foley said the DEP has both a reputation and a track record of responding slowly to permit applications from the business community, and the problem doesn’t stem from staffing issues.

When asked by National Public Radio journalist Nancy Cohen, the forum’s moderator, to address a nearly 10 percent staffing reduction the DEP has faced since 2003, Foley said “I have complaints all over state government that there aren’t enough staff. But that’s attitudinal. We simply need to do more with less.”

Foley added that he has heard complaints from businesses that application requests have taken close to two years to process, a delay that is driving businesses and jobs away. “No permit requires two years. I can promise you that’s not a responsive organization,” the GOP nominee said, adding that “I really think the answer is better management, better leadership, setting goals.”

Foley, who has been a strong advocate of privatization as a means to reduce state spending, refused to rule out employing private contractors to handle environmental inspections currently being performed by state employees. “We should get the best deal we can,” he said. “If we can get the same level or quality for less, we have an obligation to the taxpayers and the citizens to turn it over to a private contractor.”

Marsh echoed the other two candidates in calling for a “systemic change in how we do business,” but with a $3.3 billion deficit forecast for the fiscal year that begins in less than nine months, he would not rule out asking the DEP to do more with less.

Marsh did say, though, that the legislature and Gov.M. Jodi Rell made a “deplorable” decision in propping up more than $950 million in spending in this fiscal year’s budget with borrowing to be paid off with a surcharge on state utility bills, and by  raiding about 35 percent of a clean energy investment fund.

“We have to bring integrity back to our budgeting process,” he said, adding that while the next governor cannot “wave a magic wand” and reverse this and other raids on special funds immediately, that would be a priority in a Marsh administration.

The format for Monday’s event was designed by the Fund for the Environment to force the candidates to focus solely on issues and to eliminate the prospect of angry exchanges.

Each candidate was brought separately into the auditorium in Kroon Hall, given five minutes for an opening statement, and then invited to participate in a 15-minute discussion with Cohen, who specializes in environmental issues.

The three candidates did reach common ground in several areas, emphasizing remediation of polluted, former industrial sites, typically referred to as brownfields, to both spur job growth and protect the environment.

Malloy and Foley also agreed that while they support investments in fuel cells and other environmentally friendly or “green” technologies, they oppose the development of new wind turbine stations on Long Island Sound.

Both major party candidates also said they believe state government should continue with an open space preservation program, even amidst a large state budget deficit, calling it a top environmental priority and a sound financial investment.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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