An openly skeptical legislative panel, the Program Review and Investigations Committee, launched an inquiry Tuesday into whether Connecticut gets its fair share of federal funding.

The committee also approved new studies into the state’s Medicaid program, as well as the availability of substance abuse treatment for youth covered by private insurance.

The studies, which will be conducted by Program Review staff during the summer and fall, with findings presented in December, could lead to new legislative proposals in the 2013 General Assembly session that starts in January.

Program Review is one of only two legislative panels that have bipartisan leadership, and members said Tuesday that the challenges state government faces accessing federal funding transcend partisan politics or any single administration.

“There’s billions of dollars out there” that states compete for — some well and some poorly, said Sen. Stephen T. Cassano, D-Manchester. “Let’s do it right. We’re not doing it right.”

Connecticut’s larger agencies, particularly the Department of Transportation, long have been plagued by a suspicion that they fail to secure all available funding, said Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, who said his constituents in north central Connecticut have been disappointed at the lack of progress made developing a high-speed, rail commuter service between New Haven and Springfield.

“For whatever reason, Connecticut doesn’t get a huge amount for high-speed rail,” he said. “I have towns that are very excited (for Connecticut) to move forward with these projects.”

Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, one of the committee’s co-chairmen, said one of state government’s biggest flaws is that it lacks any mechanism to measure each agency’s effectiveness in securing federal aid.

“We don’t learn about things until after the fact,” he  said, adding that Connecticut needs to learn “whether we’re doing a good job, whether we’re missing opportunities — and not always after a deadline has already passed.”

Connecticut received $7.7 billion out of the $630 billion the federal government distributed to states and municipalities, ranking 18th on a per capita basis, according to Program Review staff.

In the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, federal funds account for about $3.5 billion, or 19 percent, of total revenues in the state budget’s General Fund, which covers the bulk of operating costs.

“While optimizing federal revenues has always been important to the state, Connecticut’s current fiscal climate makes garnering all available dollars a higher priority,” staff wrote in a proposed outline for the study. “Advocacy groups, legislators and other policymakers have questioned whether Connecticut is ‘leaving federal monies on the table.’”

A mayor of Manchester in the 1980s and 1990s, Cassano said his community dramatically expanded its level of federal assistance by developing a local office charged specifically with tracking grants and writing applications for all town agencies. A similar approach could pay big dividends, he added, for state government.

“I think we have done just a terrible job in grant writing and preparation,” he said. “The grant writing office pays for itself,” he said. “For these federal grants you cannot just have Charlie in the office writing a grant.”

The committee also authorized two other studies on Tuesday.

  • Access to Substance Use Treatment for Privately Insured Youth. This study would examine both state and federal “parity” statutes requiring insurers to cover both physical and mental health treatments, the reasons why many young patients’ requests for coverage for mental health treatments are being denied, and the availability of treatment providers in Connecticut.
  • Improper Medicaid Payments: This study would evaluate how the state detects and prevents fraud, including recovery of improper payments. It also will address how the state investigates cares providers suspected of fraud, as well as resulting sanctions.

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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