A bipartisan pair of lawmakers lobbied Friday for the resurrection of the legislature’s long-standing investigatory committee, which disbanded ostensibly for budgetary reasons in 2016.
For more than 40 years, the bipartisan Program Review and Investigations Committee and its full-time staff conducted in-depth studies to inform policy proposals. But the panel was scrapped as the legislative branch sought savings during a budget crunch in 2016.
On Friday, the Government Administration and Elections Committee heard support from two veteran lawmakers on a bill that would revive the panel, known as PRI.
“It was a grave mistake for the legislature to eliminate it,” Rep. Mary Mushinsky, a Wallingford Democrat and former PRI co-chair, said. Mushinsky pointed to the ongoing federal investigation of school construction contracts overseen by former Office of Policy and Management official, Kosta Diamantis.
“The recent problems of school construction contracts at OPM are just another reminder that if PRI existed still, this would be a perfect project for them to determine how the contracting was done,” Mushinsky said.
House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora pointed to two other current issues which the committee had sought to address before it was disbanded: nursing shortages and the future of the Hartford-Brainard Airport. The pandemic has worsened existing shortages of health care workers and the legislature is again mulling a study of the airport, this time with a $1.5 million price tag, according to the Courant.
“Those are two areas that, ironically, are hitting us today,” Candelora said. “That committee really did a lot of proactive work and I would love us to take a look at resurrecting it.”
In the absence of the panel, Candelora said the legislature has increasingly passed legislation creating studies or task forces to look into a variety of topics.
In some cases, those working groups do not effectively complete the work assigned to them. Candelora pointed to a panel created by legislation last year and tasked with examining the state’s emergency executive powers laws. The group never met and Friday, the Government Administration and Elections Committee heard testimony on another bill devoted to the same topic.
Lawmakers on the committee spent some time Friday debating why PRI was scrapped to begin with. Mushinsky told the panel she did not accept the budgetary reasons given at the time.
“I think that the savings was fictitious,” Mushinsky said. “We actually did end up keeping the staff. We just reassigned them. So I think that was a cover story to get rid of the PRI.”
Mushinsky chalked the panel’s disbandment up to the wishes of the state Senate, which she said was spread too thin and did not want to place members on the committee.
“The Senate was happy to see it go and the House was sad to see it go,” Mushinsky said.
Sen. Mae Flexer, a Willimantic Democrat who co-chairs the government policy committee that held Friday’s hearing, pushed back against Mushinsky’s characterization of the Senate.
“I would just respectfully point out that the Senate as a whole, perhaps, didn’t – we should not speak about the chambers as if everyone in a particular chamber wanted something or did not want something,” Flexer said, later adding that she hosted the hearing on reinstating the panel.
“You’re right,” Mushinksy said. “You’re right. Thank you, Senator Flexer. You’re having the hearing and so you’re a hero to me.”