Rep. Toni Walker, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee, “vehemently disagreed” Thursday with the Malloy administration’s interpretation of a 2004 law protecting three watchdog agencies.
Earlier this week, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes opined in a letter to three watchdog agencies that they weren’t protected from $180,000 in budget reductions.
The heads of the State Elections Enforcement Commission, Freedom of Information Commission and Office of State Ethics wrote Barnes in early July asking what gave him the authority to cut more than $180,000 from their 2017 budgets.
On Tuesday, Barnes said he doesn’t accept their interpretation of the 2004 law protecting the agencies.
“The statutory language you cite relate to the Governor’s statutory rescission authority rather than to specific authority in the adopted budget to achieve the targeted savings,” Barnes wrote in a letter.
In addition, he said that he thinks it’s important to note that “your agencies were not unfairly or disproportionately targeted.”
Sen. Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, is siding with Walker.
“Laws protecting these three watchdog agencies were put in place after a governor, while under federal investigation, tried to cut the budgets of the agencies responsible for ensuring that state officials follow the law,” Fasano said. “Now today, while Gov. Malloy is under investigation, he is the one trying to cut from these watchdogs. It is an embarrassment to the state.”
The move drew some unflattering comparisons between Malloy and former Gov. John G. Rowland, who prompted the 2004 law.
Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, said the reason the 2004 law was put in place during the last year of former Gov. John Rowland’s administration was because he proposed gutting Ethics and the SEEC, two agencies investigating his administration.
“Given the dispute with SEEC, Gov. Malloy’s plan to cut watchdog budgets raises the specter of the same interpretation,” Hobert Flynn said.
The Connecticut Democratic Party and Malloy’s 2014 re-election campaign recently paid $325,000 to the State Elections Enforcement Commission to settle a dispute over fundraising activities. A federal grand jury is now investigating the same fundraising claims.
Carol Carson, executive director of the Office of State Ethics, said the watchdog agencies are considering requesting a formal opinion from Attorney General George Jepsen.
Meanwhile, the Malloy administration is sticking to its guns.
“Rep. Walker, as well as her colleagues, specifically gave the Governor the authority to do holdbacks, including holdbacks to the watchdogs, “Chris McClure, a spokesman for Malloy, said. “She says in her press release that OPM is ‘rescinding budgeted funding,’ — but that simply isn’t correct. OPM is doing what the budget agreement requires — hold back funds from agencies to balance the budget.”
Connecticut Council of Freedom of Information President Dan Klau said his organization “strongly disagrees,” with the Malloy administration’s interpretation.
“Nothing the General Assembly did last session expressly or implicitly repealed the 2004 law,” Klau said. “The watchdog agencies remain subject to the legislature’s budget-cutting authority, but not the governor’s.”