Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposal to further consolidate state watchdog agencies — and shift oversight of their most crucial functions into his administration — could be facing a big roadblock in the state legislature’s budget-writing panel.

Though the Appropriations Committee isn’t expected to release its budget proposal for another month, members speaking during and after Friday’s public hearing on the governor’s merger plan were openly skeptical.

Also Friday, a new coalition of powerful social services, open government and civil rights advocates announced its formation to oppose the governor’s plan.

“Each one of these individual offices represents something that is necessary, that protects people,” Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said of the nine watchdog agencies currently aligned in a loose confederation known as the state Office of Governmental Accountability.

Toni Walker 3-22-13

State Rep. Toni Walker: ”Each one of these individual offices represents something that is necessary…”

Though these groups share clerical staff, they retain separate administrative, legal and advocacy functions.

In addition, the three chief watchdog agencies — The Freedom of Information Commission, Elections Enforcement Commission and Office Of State  Ethics —  are further insulated from the rest of the Executive Branch. Specifically, the governor cannot unilaterally reduce their budgets in mid-year to deal with a shortfall in overall state finances.

Malloy has proposed removing that exemption. The governor also would reduce the number of attorneys assigned to the three chief watchdogs, merge them into a new Office of Hearings, and place them under the supervision of a gubernatorial appointee.

All of the governor’s proposed changes would reduce overall spending on the watchdogs by less than $79,000. In the context of this year’s $20.54 billion state budget, that represents about 1/2600th of a percent.

For that level of savings, “we are cutting off our nose to spite our face,” said Walker, who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee.

But Malloy’s budget director, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Benjamin Barnes, argued the relative size of savings shouldn’t stop government from trying to cut costs.

“We should treat this money like it is somebody else’s” other than state government’s, he said.

Barnes also took issue when Rep. Terrie Wood, R-Darien, called it “a little troubling” to envision a watchdog system in which lawyers handling ethics violations, elections law and right-to-know disputes would answer to a political appointee.

“I reject that premise,” he said. “I have attorneys who report to me and I think they are among the most ethical I know.”

Sen. Robert Kane of Watertown, the ranking GOP senator on Appropriations, predicted Friday that the governor’s proposal wouldn’t survive in the committee budget due out next month.

“We do appreciate consolidation when it works,” he said. “But watchdog agencies like these are kept separate on purpose to keep politics out.”

Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-New Haven, a veteran member of the committee, praised Malloy for taking risks with his budget to trim costs, but was skeptical many of Malloy’s fellow Democrats in the legislature’s majority would back these initiatives.

“A number of my colleagues already have expressed remorse for having gone along with the changes two years ago” that cut watchdog budgets and forced them to share clerical staff, Dillon said. “Some of these agencies have some very strong adherents.”

The watchdogs’ allies intensified their opposition to the proposed changes Friday by announcing formation of the Connecticut Advocates for Accountable Government, a coalition that includes: the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters; Common Cause, the Connecticut Citizens Action Group, the Connecticut Association for Human Services, and the media freedom clinic at Yale University.

Connecticut Voices for Children, a New Haven-based, social services advocacy group and another coalition member, testified that Malloy’s proposal “would jeopardize Voices’ ability to conduct independent research in the best interest of Connecticut’s children, and also diminish protections for some of Connecticut’s most vulnerable populations.”

Another coalition member that has become one of the chief critics of the state Department of Social Services, the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, said Malloy’s plan would hinder its ability to research how effectively state-funded programs actually serve poor clients.

Sheldon Toubman, an attorney with New Haven Legal Assistance Association, said the coalition was formed “in response to the steady erosion of the public’s access to information about the government it elects and funds.”

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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