Sen. Kane, Legislators Question Lack of Detail in “Confusing” Malloy Budget [CT Mirror]

February 8, 2013

Article as it appeared in the Connecticut Mirror

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s effort to “streamline” his proposed two-year budget has left plenty of confusion in its wake.

“I am being gentle,” Rep. Toni Walker, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee, told the governor’s budget chief Benjamin Barnes Thursday. “I know a lot of people have asked exactly how to read the budget.

At issue are numerous line items historically kept separate that were swept into catch-all funds in the governor’s $43.8 billion spending plan unveiled Wednesday.

For example, in the Department of Education portion, a dozen programs that in the current year are set to receive $42.5 million have been swept into a new single line item called “School Improvements.”

How much will the reading pilot for elementary schools or teacher recruitment programs receive under the governor’s proposed budget?

There is no explanation. The proposed budgets for numerous other state agencies use the same “streamlining” approach.

Over half of the line items in the Department of Children and Families budget were eliminated and consolidated.

“The conflict that we have was trying to follow the pattern, the footprint, and so the footprint is just a little …” Walker said, before Barnes quickly interjected that explanations “are conveniently adjacent.”

The budget, in fact, includes dozens of notations showing which programs were merged into larger funds. But there is no way for readers to see precisely how many dollars each specific program would receive.

Walker, a New Haven Democrat who has served on Appropriations for nine years, laughingly explained she was trying to temper her criticism.

“I couldn’t figure out under the financial summary where you put the grants,” said Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, the other chairwoman of the legislature’s budget-writing committee.

Harp, who has been on Appropriations for more than 15 years, called the budget “confusing.”

The explanation in the budget for the new format is that streamlining was done “in order to provide the agency with more flexibility.” Barnes tried to explain the reasoning to lawmakers.

“I appreciate what you are saying,” he said, adding that the change was made in an effort to “clean up” the budget.

“We have thought for a long time it has, I wouldn’t say aggravated, that’s probably too strong of a word, that it’s been clear there are certain grant items that were included in a section of the budget where we didn’t think they belong,” he said.

He added that if any of those line items that used to be spelled out received “significant changes, there may be a write up in the highlights section of the budget.”

“It was just clean up that we thought was important,” he told the committee.

Other legislators and advocates were less patient, arguing that “streamlining” the budget translates into greater confusion and a lack of transparency. The ability to see specifically how many dollars each program or priority would receive is greatly reduced.

In other words, they don’t like the abbreviated spending plan released Wednesday.

“This is the most complicated budget proposal as it affects municipalities that I’ve seen in my career,” said James Finley, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and an official with the lobbying group for cities and towns for three decades.

Sen. Robert Kane of Watertown, the ranking Republican senator on the Appropriations Committee, couldn’t understand why the administration proposed shifting the PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) grant funds to municipalities into the Education Cost Sharing grant — since communities still could effectively use the dollars as a PILOT grant to support non-education programs.

“Why make the change?” Kane said. “If everything is the same, why do it?”

“We believe a budget is a reflection of our goals,” Barnes said, adding that the governor believes education should be a higher priority in municipal budgets.

Follow Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on Twitter @jacquelinerabe