CTNewsJunkie file photo
OPM Secretary Ben Barnes (CTNewsJunkie file photo)

After criticism from lawmakers and good government groups, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration relented and restored the $183,000 they had proposed to cut from three watchdog agencies.

Following a Friday meeting with the heads of the Office of State Ethics, Freedom of Information Commission, and State Elections Enforcement Commission, the Office of Policy and Management announced it would restore the funding.

“Our meeting was cordial and productive, and will lead to greater communication around budget issues impacting their agencies in the future,” Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes said.

However, he steered clear of acknowledging the budget holdbacks would have violated a 2004 law that prohibits the executive branch from unilaterally cutting the three watchdog agencies.

“Independent of any legal interpretation of OPM’s authority with respect to budget reduction, I have voluntarily agreed that it is in the best interests of the watchdog agencies and the state to release the holdback of their appropriations,” Barnes said. “I believe they should have the resources necessary to continue their important missions through the remainder of this fiscal year.”

Carol Carson, executive director of the Office of State Ethics, described the meeting Friday as “fruitful.”

She said the watchdogs are committed to prudently managing their budgets and whenever possible return money at the end of the year to the general fund.

“We agree that the Office of State Ethics and its fellow watchdogs must have the resources they need to meet their mandates,” Carson added.

Colleen Murphy, executive director of the Freedom of Information Commission, said she was “relieved” that they weren’t in immediate danger of losing staff or resources.

Earlier this week, Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, asked Attorney General George Jepsen for a formal opinion on whether Malloy has the ability to reduce the budgets of the watchdog agencies without legislative approval.

A 2004 law passed during the last year of former Gov. John G. Rowland’s administration prohibits the executive branch from unilaterally cutting the funding of the three watchdog agencies. That year, Rowland had proposed gutting Ethics and the SEEC, two agencies that investigated his administration.

“I’m glad that Gov. Malloy finally realizes how absurd and inappropriate his cuts to these three watchdog agencies were,” Fasano said Friday.

However, it should not have taken so long for Malloy to realize it, Fasano said.

“To see that a complete turnaround from the governor’s office did not come until after I sought a formal opinion from the Attorney General on the matter is very telling,” Fasano said. “It’s sad that it took this long for the right decision to be made, but I appreciate the fact that the governor reconsidered.”

Fasano said he wouldn’t press Jepsen, an ally and longtime friend of Malloy, to issue an opinion. Instead, he said he will pursue legislation to strengthen the 2004 law so there’s no ambiguities in the future.