Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz on Tuesday defended controversial legislative provisions that exempt from open records laws a board charged with overseeing a $100 million contribution to help Connecticut’s struggling public schools.
Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, told reporters, who raised questions about the controversial exemptions Tuesday, that he doesn’t think there is cause for concern at this point.
“I think we’re putting the cart before the horse,” Aresimowicz said. “They haven’t even had a meeting yet. They haven’t structured themselves and we’re already talking about all the things they could do wrong… Let’s wait ’til there’s smoke before we say there’s fire. I’m really excited about the opportunity to partner with individuals who are willing to put up that much money to make the state a better place.”
The speaker’s comments came a day after it became clear that language in the new, biennial state budget would exempt the board charged with overseeing the $100 million contribution from hedge fund giant Ray Dalio’s philanthropic foundation — and a matching $100 million in taxpayer money — from state ethics and disclosure rules.
In April, Barbara and Ray Dalio joined with Gov. Ned Lamont to announce their five-year plan to contribute $100 million to help youths in communities with high poverty rates. That sum is to be matched by a $100 million investment from the state over the next five years, and another $100 million contributed by other private donors.
The legislation, included in the state budget bill, establishes a “Partnership for Connecticut” as a non-profit corporation with an initial 13-member board to oversee the expenditure of the fund. The budget bill sets the state’s contribution for Fiscal Year 2020 at $20 million.
The board will include five state officials: the governor, the House speaker, Senate president pro tem, and the House and Senate minority leaders. Lamont would appoint three other members and the Dalio Foundation would name four. The 13th member of the corporation would be hired by the board.
The bill states “no member of the board of directors or any officer or employee of the corporation shall be (1) a state employee or public official” as defined in the Code of Ethics or the statute restricting state contractors from making political contributions.
It also states “The corporation shall not be construed to be a department, institution, public agency, public instrumentality or political subdivision of the state, or to perform any governmental function.”
Rep. Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, charged Monday that this effectively exempts the corporation from the Freedom of Information Act, the ethics code, and the state’s contracting standards.
“Since when are tax dollars not subject to complete transparency?” he asked during a break in the budget debate Monday. “The governor has created a diversion of taxpayer revenues into a corporation that can spend money in the shadows. … I would be shocked if any legislative leader would honor this cloak of secrecy.”
Asked how the public will know about the board’s actions and how the money is being spent, Aresimowicz said, “The governor, a politician, the legislature, filled with politicians, have handed over money to a company or an organization that’s going to be doing a lot of good around the state. You don’t think we’re going to be screaming from every rooftop what we’re doing with that money? Of course we will. That’s how we operate.”
House Majority leader, Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said that when grants are made to municipalities and local boards of education they will be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Aresimowicz said he expects the board meetings will be open to the public, though he said there will likely be issues that will require the board to go into executive session.
“I am absolutely comfortable with the bill that we passed … (as it applies to Dalio),” Aresimowicz said. “If we are proven wrong, we are the legislature, we’ll come in and change it. We’ll stop allocating the money. There are safeguards in place. We are not just going to hand millions …. of taxpayers’ dollars out and not do some checking.”
“We’re on the board ourselves …The first time we reach out and say we’d like additional information and we don’t get it, I don’t think that’s going to be something that will go without a reaction.”