Christine Stuart photo

One day before a Republican-sponsored forum on the state budget, Democratic lawmakers held a press conference to announce that state Comptroller Nancy Wyman’s office will conduct an audit of the Department of Social Services budget.

Saying it’s too soon to worry about the estimated $300 million state budget deficit, which does not yet reflect the recent events on Wall Street, Democrats said they want to focus on things they can control, like the $5.3 billion Department of Social Services budget.

Earlier this year the Democratic majority contended that the state agency had a $100 million surplus built into its budget, an allegation which Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s budget director has disputed.

Wyman said the audit will be conduct by UHY and will cost under $100,000. She said this audit will be different than the one conducted by the state Auditors of Public Accounts, which just looks at compliance with state statutes and not the overall financial picture of the agency.

“It would be harder to find a more textbook example of ‘waste’ and ‘inefficiency’ than the Comptroller’s plan to spend tens of thousands of dollars to have outside consultants audit DSS,” Rich Harris, Rell’s spokesman said Wednesday. “Perhaps the consultants will offer a discount if they are also hired to examine the legislative branch for frivolous spending.”

Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the Department of Social Services is the “most complex and least transparent” state agency. Senate President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said a detailed audit of the agency will help lawmakers “finally understand what’s happening,” inside the agency which is in charge of everything from Medicaid to the Section 8 housing program. 

In a statement sent out after the press conference, Williams said, “I am saddened and disappointed that Gov. Rell’s office has decided to lapse into partisan rhetoric when all the legislature wants is more transparency in what is the largest part of Connecticut’s budget. Connecticut taxpayers deserve to know that their tax dollars aren’t being wasted and for some reason Gov. Rell opposes that.”

Speaker of the House James Amann, D-Milford, who didn’t rule out attending the Republican’s budget forum Thursday, said lawmakers “shouldn’t be fanning the flames of fear and using the upcoming election as a backstop.”

Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said in a two week period of time the state budget deficit has doubled. “If that isn’t cause for legislators on both sides of the aisle to get together and grasp the depth of the situation, then I don’t know what is,” he said Wednesday in the lobby of the state Capitol.

Cafero said the budget forum Thursday is not a partisan thing. He said in order for the legislature to deal with the state’s budget woes, it has to first understand what the problem is, which is the goal of Thursday’s forum.

“I am not opposed to auditing DSS,” Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Southport, said in an emailed statement Wednesday.

However, “This audit falls terribly short as an attempt to address the growing financial crisis and budget deficit we’re facing,” he said. “Anyone who thinks we are going to audit our way out of this financial crisis is either incredibly naive or deliberately trying to pull the wool over the heads of voters.”

Democratic leaders said they have scheduled a meeting of the Appropriations and Finance Committees on Nov. 18. Williams said the later date makes more sense because the state will have a better picture of revenue projections.

“It is irresponsible to say we’ll take a look after the Nov. 4th elections,” Cafero said.