FOI complaint seeks documents delving into fiscal stability panel’s work

Two progressive policy groups have charged the state’s fiscal stability commission with failing to disclose documents — including those tied to a nonprofit that funded key budgetary consultants for the panel.

The Connecticut Citizens Action Group (CCAG) and the state chapter of Common Cause filed a complaint Wednesday with the Freedom of Information Commission alleging a request for documents filed just over one month ago has not been filled.

Leaders of CCAG and Common Cause also called on the General Assembly not to act on any recommendations from the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth until the right-to-know complaint has been resolved.

Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org file photo

Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth co-chairs Jim Smith, left, and Robert Patricelli

While four legislative panels are scheduled to conduct a hearing Friday on the commission’s wide array of recommendations — including a major overhaul of the state tax system, changes to collective bargaining and restoration of tolls —  it remained unclear whether lawmakers would vote on these and other proposals.

A bill raised recently by the Commerce Committee would neither accept nor reject any recommendations, but would defer action until mid-2019 to allow further analysis by the Department of Economic and Community Development.

“In our opinion the commission was given extraordinary powers by the legislature,” CCAG Executive Director Tom Swan told The Mirror. “We believe that what comes with that extraordinary power is a need to be transparent.”

“Clearly this is a commission that was created by the legislature to do the work of the government, and they were not being transparent about what it was they were doing,” said Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut.

At issue is not only the 14-member volunteer panel created by the General Assembly during last October’s adoption of the new state budget, but also a nonprofit entity called Connecticut Rising, Inc.

Robert Patricelli, a retired healthcare executive and co-chair of the commission, created the nonprofit in November. It was Patricelli and his fellow co-chair, Webster Bank chairman and former CEO Jim Smith of Middlebury, who asked legislative leaders to empower a panel from the private sector to help the state chart a path out of economic doldrums and frequent budget crises.

The nonprofit received $100,000 contributions from each of three entities, including Webster Bank and the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Yale University.

Those funds were used to help retain three financial consultants: McKinsey & Company, Millstein & Co., and Cain Associates. They also paid for McDowell Jewett Communications, a media consultant group that assists the commission.

The commission’s final report acknowledged all four entities as “our research and policy consultants.”

Swan and Quickmire’s organizations requested all documents received by the commission or related to its work. This includes “Any correspondence with Connecticut Rising, or any of its board members, donors or employees, related to donations to, expenditures by, or solicitations of donations to said entity, and all communications with any vendors hired by and/or working with Connecticut Rising Inc.” the two wrote in their Feb. 20 request for documents.

Swan and Quickmire noted that they received a letter on Feb. 23 from the Office of Legislative Management acknowledging the FOI request and indicating it was being addressed.

But they added that nothing has been provided since.

ctmirror.org file photo

Tom Swan, executive director of CCAG

Patricelli and Smith issued a joint statement Wednesday saying, “To our knowledge we haven’t received any further FOI requests and we are complying with the previous one within a time frame typical of what it takes to respond to a request such as this.”

Swan and Quickmire called on legislative leaders, though, not to consider the report’s many recommendations until all documents and details related to the work of Connecticut Rising, Inc. have been disclosed.

“They set up a nonprofit and hired people, circumventing any bidding or transparency laws the state has, and this raises great concerns for us,” Swan said.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said Thursday that,  “The Commission on Fiscal Stability & Economic Growth has a duty and a responsibility to conduct itself in a fully transparent manner. While I was reassured by the commission’s initial disclosure of its donors, it is critically important that the commission, its members and its not-for-profit affiliate Connecticut Rising, provide a full accounting of any additional donors, spending and the sources of its research and information.”

Looney added that, “I would be deeply concerned about moving forward any of its recommendations without the proper level of transparency required to do so.”

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said, “I always try to gather information from all sides before taking a final position on an issue.”

But the speaker added that “ensuring that legislators have access to all of the necessary information before they decide how to vote is something I feel strongly about, which is why it is my hope that the FOI request is met sooner rather than later.”

But House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said there is no reason to delay the process.

“Of course they have every right to file requests for information and seek whatever data they want,” Klarides said. “But we are following the process that was established. The legislature is now required to conduct a hearing and will take up the recommendations as they have been presented.’’

The Senate Republican Caucus did not comment early Thursday afternoon.

It remained unclear whether the legislature would vote on the recommendations, regardless of the FOI complaint.

As of Thursday morning, one bill raised for a vote would have directed the Department of Economic and Community Development to study all commission recommendations and report back by July 2019.

“While we appreciate the quick work by the Commerce Committee, the commission’s strong preference is for action on the recommendations rather than referral to an agency for further study,” the co-chairs wrote in a joint statement.

Sen. Joan Hartley of Waterbury, the Senate Democratic chair of commerce, and Rep. Caroline Simmons, D-Stamford, the House chair, both said the initial bill raised was just a starting point.

If committee members want to vote on the recommendations after conducting a public hearing on them Friday, Hartley and Simmons said, members still could do so. That hearing, which also would be conducted by the Appropriations; Finance, Revenue & Bonding; and Planning and Development committees, is set to begin at 12:30 p.m. in the Hall of the House.

The fiscal stability commission’s March 1 report featured a wide array of recommendations including:

  • Lowering all income tax rates, including dropping the top rate from nearly 7 percent to 5.75 percent.
  • Repealing the gift and estate taxes.
  • Raising the base sales tax rate from 6.35 percent to 7.25 percent while boosting corporation taxes by about $475 million per year.
  • Eliminating $750 million in tax credits and exemptions, most of which within the state tax system are aimed at consumers.
  • Boosting the minimum wage to $15 per hour.
  • Ending  collective bargaining for state employee benefits after the current contract expires in 2027.
  • Establishing electronic tolling on highways and raising gasoline taxes to fund a major transportation rebuild.
  • Empowering municipal coalitions to add one-half of 1 percentage point to the sales tax rate to fund regional services and diversify local budgets that rely excessively on property taxes.
  • Slashing $1 billion from the state’s annual operating budget.
  • And building a new major college campus focused on science and engineering in a major Connecticut city.

Patricelli and Smith have said repeatedly that the plan is designed to work holistically and that lawmakers should resist the urge to “cherry-pick” select proposals.

The Commerce Committee’s third chairman, Sen. L. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, has praised several of the fiscal stability panel’s recommendations. But he also has said he believes most Senate Republicans would have a tough time backing proposals to raise taxes on corporations and to set a $15 per hour minimum wage.

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