Day Editorial: Change welcomed, now fix law to protect state watchdog agencies

August 23, 2016

The Day

While the decision by the Malloy administration to end its plans to unilaterally cut spending for the so-called watchdog agencies is a welcomed move, the legislature needs to clarify the rules protecting them from gubernatorial meddling. The agencies have the task of keeping state government open and honest.

A debate began when the administration announced it would withhold $183,023 in legislative-approved funding from the Office of State Ethics, Freedom of Information Commission, and the State Elections Enforcement Commission. Clean government advocates, including this newspaper, argued that by withholding the funding, essentially a cut, the administration was violating a law dating to 2004.

Passed when Republican Gov. John G. Rowland was confronting the “pay-to-play” scandal that would drive him from office and into a federal prison for a year, the law prohibited governors from unilaterally cutting the watchdog agency budgets. It left the budget decisions strictly up to the General Assembly. This is different from other agencies, where the governor has some discretion to cut to keep the state budget balanced.

The intent of the law is to prevent any governor who might be feeling the heat from investigations by these agencies, or who might be unhappy with their actions, to inhibit their functioning by cutting funding.

Office of Policy and Management Secretary Benjamin Barnes saw the matter differently. He noted that the last legislature had mandated the administration find additional savings throughout state government, and the fact that it did not exempt the agencies left the watchdogs vulnerable to sharing the cost-savings burden. Secondly, Barnes noted the money-saving move was a holdback of funding, and technically not a cut covered by the statute.
In announcing Friday the administration’s decision to “release the holdback of their appropriations,” he added that it was doing so, “Independent of any legal interpretation of OPM’s authority with respect to budget reduction.”

In other words, the Malloy administration is not conceding anything on the legal issue. Barnes made his announcement after meeting with directors of the three agencies.
The legislature needs to clarify the legal issue. It is not an abstract question. Without protection, a governor could compromise the ability of these agencies to keep Connecticut government clean and transparent, or punish them for doing so.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, had sought a legal opinion on the matter from Attorney General George Jepsen, but withdrew the request given the administration’s reversal.

Fasano said that instead he will seek legislation to strengthen the law, in the process clarifying the prohibition against budgetary meddling by a governor into the operations of the three watchdogs.

In that effort he should seek and receive bipartisan support.