Partisan politics or efficiency? Lamont’s plans for school building program sparks debate
A plan from Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration to shift oversight of the municipal school construction process into the governor’s budget office is not going over well with lawmakers.
Republicans say the Democratic governor’s initiative is a dangerous power grab that threatens a process that not only works well but has traditionally been immune from politics.
And one of the Democratic leaders of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee said that while the move could make sense, lawmakers need more information since it cannot be done without legislative approval.
“This move by Governor Lamont’s administration is playing politics with school construction and a direct violation of state law,” Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, who called the move a “power grab.”
Lamont’s budget director, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw, announced in a memo this week that staff from the School Construction Unit — currently located within the Department of Administrative Services — were being transferred into OPM.
The administration referred questions Friday to DAS Commissioner Josh Geballe, who said the move is about increasing efficiency.
“This is consistent with Governor Lamont’s overall directive to find opportunities to streamline state government,” he said, adding that pairing OPM with the School Construction Unit is a natural move given their common functions.
The unit oversees hundreds of millions of dollars in state grants awarded annually to municipalities to build new schools and to renovate existing facilities.
Connecticut borrows funds for the program by issuing bonds on Wall Street, and it represents one of the single-largest financing programs in state government — along with the transportation capital program.
The Office of Policy and Management is the Executive Branch’s chief budgetary, policy planning and labor relations agency. It oversees billions of dollars in annual spending and financing, and Geballe noted OPM already collaborates closely with the School Construction Unit.
But because of OPM’s immense authority — and because it executes so much of a governor’s agenda — it generally is viewed by legislators as more partisan than other departments and agencies within the Executive Branch.
“This reeks of politics,” said Deputy House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. “There is not a good reason to make this move.”
Oversight of school construction has been assigned to the Department of Administrative Services for decades. And Candelora, who’s served in the legislature since 2007, said the unit traditionally has been seen as immune from partisan politics.
“I think over the years it’s worked in bipartisan fashion and worked well with governors and legislatures,” he said.
But Geballe said there is no intention or plan to change the operations — or the nonpartisan nature — of the school construction oversight process.
“I think the processes remain the same, the standards remain the same, the professional leadership remains the same,” he said.
Generally, the state provides grants to school districts on major construction projects at rates ranging from 20% to 80%, with slightly less for new schools. A complicated formula based on a community’s wealth determines the rate of reimbursement.
Connecticut’s capital spending on school construction declined from $826 million in 2008 to $330.9 million last year as student population has declined.
But legislators from both parties said the decision isn’t Lamont’s to make — at least not alone.
“The school construction program is required by state statute to be managed by the Department of Administrative Services,” Fasano said. “Moving this program into OPM, the governor’s budget office, is a massive overreach by the governor and in violation of state statute.
Candelora agreed with Fasano that such a move would require legislative approval, as did Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford.
Rojas, who co-chairs the powerful Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, said that while he has an open mind about the governor’s proposal, the administration needs to consult with legislators.
“I can see where it could make a lot of sense to have a major component of bonding oversight inside OPM,” he said.
But Rojas agreed that school construction grant oversight largely has been free of partisan politics, and should remain so.
Geballe added that the administration does plan to brief legislators and to seek “relevant changes to statutes.”
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