A 350-page bill that consolidates nine watchdog agencies under one umbrella passed the House Tuesday despite objections of those agencies who say it waters down their mission.
The bill consolidates the Office of State Ethics, State Elections Enforcement Commission, Freedom of Information Commission, Judicial Review Council, Judicial Selection Commission, Board of Firearms Permit Examiners, Office of the Child Advocate, Office of the Victim Advocate, and the State Contracting Standards Board. The bill passed 91 to 54 Tuesday evening with three Democrats voting against it.
Carol Carson, executive director of the Office of State Ethics, said the bill merges the nine agencies then tells them to present a director to oversee all the back office functions of the agencies by Aug. 1 to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Carson said a month is hardly enough time to interview, select, and present a candidate to the governor. The governor has the power to appoint a director by Sept. 2.
“It’s illusionary that we have control over this given the timeframe,” Carson said.
The bill also reduces the number of employees in Caron’s office and the offices of the eight other watchdog agencies.
Rep. Russ Morin, D-Wethersfield, said he thinks the bill is a good compromise.
“Did they get everything they wanted? No,” Morin said. However, he said the structure the legislature passed does maintain the independence of the agencies.
The state Elections Enforcement Commission was not happy with the changes either.
Albert Lenge, executive director of the SEEC, said it shortens the term for commissioners from five to three years and prohibits consecutive reappointment. He said its takes an SEEC lawyer two years to gain competency, so commissioners will be overly reliant on the staff during most of their term.
In a letter to lawmakers Stephen Cashman, chairman of the SEEC, called that provision of the bill a “poison pill.”
“Our elections and campaign finance laws are not simple,“ Cashman wrote. “This is especially so in these historic times as the United States Supreme Court re-writes election law and the Commission implements the landmark Citizens’ Election Program.”
“Abruptly cutting off the Commissioners’ ability to serve after 3 years would be a significant blow to the collective intellectual capital of the Commission,” Cashman concluded.
Republicans like House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero said the reduction in the terms of SEEC commissioners was not discussed at a public hearing and was not vetted before Tuesday’s debate.
Cafero said the make up of the board will be under a political appointee. He said they shoved everything they were unable to pass into an “aircraft carrier” of a bill to get it through.
But he didn’t completely blame the legislative leadership. He said Democratic lawmakers are just being told what to do by the heavy-handed Malloy administration.
House Speaker Chris Donovan said it was lawmakers who recommended the change from five to three years, but was unable to identify which lawmaker made the suggestions. The Malloy administration claimed they didn’t suggest the change, a statement Donovan said was accurate.
Donovan applauded the change for bringing “new blood” to the commission. He said the rest of the bill was debate in committees in one form or another.
In addition to the changes in terms for commissioners the bill makes changes to the Citizens’ Election Program over the objections of Republicans who proposed an amendment which would cancel the proposed increases candidates are expected to get for their campaigns.
Rep. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said everyone has suffered in this budget process with the exception of the government and political campaign process. He said he didn’t know why the public grants to candidates were increasing when the federal government refused to give Social Security recipients an increase in their cost of living. He offered an amendment to cancel the proposed increases.
Morin said the amendment would discourage people from running for office. The amendment was defeated.
In addition to the changes to the watchdog agencies the 350-page bill also includes language implementing the budgetary policy regarding education and higher education. So it establishes a 15-member board to study the finances, management, and enrollment structure of the vocational-technical school system, and a 12-member task force to study the Education Cost Sharing formula.
Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said the above educational measures were all ones she voted for in committee, but she can’t vote for them Tuesday because they’re part of a larger bill to implement the budget that she doesn’t support. The 350-page bill addressed most of the agency consolidations and odds and ends of other pieces of legislation, such as a piece which does not force the Governor’s Foot Guard to charge money to certain organizations seeking to use its facilities.
Cafero said he used to say it was one party government, but under Malloy it’s turned into “one branch” government.