OP-ED | Budget Changes Hamstring Good Government
News that most of the Legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee staff would be assigned to other legislative support offices is being billed as a cost-saving measure. Five analysts are being moved to the Auditors of Public Accounts and the five others are being transferred elsewhere.
While it’s true the longtime director of the committee, Carrie Vilbert, will retire as a result of the changes, it’s hard to see how this provides real budget savings rather than a cost re-allocation. The bottom line is that fewer analysts will be looking at the financial consequences of our state legislation and programs, which cannot possibly be viewed as a good thing by any rational taxpayer .
What makes this move particularly disturbing, especially in light of what’s been happening with the state’s economic incentives, is that the program review staff would have been assigned to review hundreds of millions of dollars in business tax incentives if Comptroller Kevin Lembo’s bill — which was passed by both houses of the legislature — had not been subsequently vetoed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Some of us are old enough to remember when the Governor came to office pledging to run an “open and transparent” government.
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, justifies the decision in terms of cost savings: “In a tough budget year, it was critical to find savings across every branch of government — including the Legislative Branch. Transitioning PRI’s staff into an independent watchdog agency like the Auditor of Public Accounts will preserve their function of oversight and investigation.”
Interestingly, outgoing Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, seems less convinced that this was the correct course of action: “We are dealing with budget reductions across state government, and the legislative branch is no exception. As a former chair of Program Review, I have an acute understanding of the scope and workings of the committee, and personally believed their function would best be absorbed as part of our legislative research office. Others felt Program Review was best suited under the purview of our state auditors, and there is merit to that perspective as well.”
Jonathan Pelto, the Green Party candidate for the 2nd Congressional District who also served as House chair of the committee during his time in the General Assembly, is more blunt in his assessment: “The Program and Investigations Review Committee is the legislature’s primary vehicle for investigating and overseeing Executive Branch actions. To eliminate the committee’s professional staff is to effectively gouge out the legislature’s eyes and then ponder why inappropriate government activities go unseen.”
Thomas Cafcas, research analyst at Good Jobs First, agrees. “This is about checks and balances on state government. This is about the executive branch and the legislative branch — if the legislative branch is so hamstrung it can’t keep tabs of what’s going on in state government, it’s a question of the balance of power.”
As a taxpayer, it’s hard to see a benefit to the move. We asked both Looney and Sharkey: “If the staff members are being transferred to state auditors, is there actually an overall budget reduction, or is it merely a transfer of cost allocation? If there is an actual cost savings, can you quantify what that is in dollar terms?”
We didn’t receive a timely response from Looney, but Larry Perosino, Sharkey’s press aide, responded: “There is def savings, don’t know #. Director retiring, and some moving into vacancies not filled but budgeted.”
In other words, for a nebulous, not particularly large dollar amount in savings, it appears legislative leaders have decided to abdicate analyzing the financial consequences of their legislation, which flies in the face of advice from good government groups across the country.
Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, finds this logic problematic.
“The idea that [cutting] a 750,000 investigative budget is going to really save money — we would dispute that immediately,” LeRoy said. “A modest amount of oversight in making sure the state is clawing back money appropriately on the new Sikorsky deal just announced, or any of the other high profile deals the state has done. We believe it’s highly cost effective and money well spent to have oversight of outcomes of economic development deals. Connecticut is very much in the middle of the pack in terms of what it requires and how well it watches the store.”
The tighter the state’s finances get, the greater the need for accountability and transparency, which is why this move seems bizarre and politically motivated. As Derek Thomas of Connecticut Voices for Children points out, “The US Public Interest Research Group’s Following the Money report cites examples of cost savings from greater transparency and accountability on public spending. For example: “In Texas, the Comptroller’s office uses its transparency website to evaluate state agency spending patterns. By monitoring contracts more closely and sourcing services from new vendors when the potential for cost-cutting was identified, the state claims to have realized more than $163 million in savings to date.”
While the dominant narrative is that Connecticut is unfriendly to business, there’s been a massive increase in taxpayer subsidies to business in the past decade.
“The way that economic development works in this country is already very corporate dominated,” LeRoy points out. “Public officials already have both hands tied behind their back in terms of bargaining power . . . you don’t want your public officials hamstrung in terms of oversight of these programs in a process that is already corporate dominated, especially if the state is going to loosen the rules or open the spigots. The prevailing dogma . . . would have people believe that government is being unfriendly to business, but the truth is that government is giving away more to business than ever and therefore we have every right as taxpayers to insist on more oversight than ever. Connecticut is in the middle of the pack as far as ensuring programs incentives are administered efficiently.”
That only makes the decision to cut the number of analysts minding the store even more questionable — and makes one wonder if there’s a political motivation behind it.
Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU (and as such is an AAUP member), and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.
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