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Watchdog agencies worried about state budget cuts

Watchdog agencies worried about state budget cuts

HARTFORD — The state’s watchdog agencies warn that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget proposal would force staffing cuts that threaten the efficacy of their agencies.

While none of the three agencies would see a cut over $100,000, the executive directors say the cuts represent sizable portions of their budgets and come after years of similar reductions.

“I think as a smaller agency, when we suffer a cut it has a greater impact,” Office of State Ethics Executive Director Carol Carson said Monday.

Malloy’s proposal does include additional funding for human resource positions for each agency after lawmakers last year removed Ethics, the Freedom of Information Commission, and the State Elections Enforcement Commission from the Office of Government Accountability.

The proposal also includes a proposed cut of $96,000 to the SEEC, which has a budget of $3.2 million this year. It would cut $44,400 from FOIC, which has a $1.48 million budget this year, and $42,500 from Ethics, which operates with a $1.42 million budget.

Chris McClure, spokesman for Malloy’s budget office, said the proposal included “significant expenditure reductions” in order to remain balanced and close a projected $1.7 billion deficit next fiscal year.

“In this slow growth economic environment, we are aligning state government spending to revenues just like the households and businesses of Connecticut, and those expenditure cuts — $850 million last year and a proposed $1.36 billion this year — are going to impact agencies,” McClure said.

The heads of the three watchdog agencies say they are receiving an unfair portion of the cuts. SEEC Executive Director Michael Brandi said the cut would force him to lay off staff or leave vacancies open.

“When I say it is a maintenance budget, that is exactly what it is — simply enough money to continue our basic governmental core functioning,” he told the legislature’s Appropriations Committee Friday.

The heads of the three agencies said the cuts would mean cumulative reductions of roughly 40 percent to their respective budgets since 2011.

“I think any further cutback in our staff right now is probably unsustainable in terms of doing the work that we have,” FOIC Executive Director Colleen Murphy said.

If the FOIC fails to make a decision within one year of a complaint, the case is dismissed by statute.

Murphy said the commission hasn’t yet missed that mark, but expressed concern that “there are certainly a number of cases that are getting close.”

SEEC, meanwhile, administers the Citizens’ Election Program grants to candidates for state office. Brandi said the program can greatly limit his staff’s ability to investigate complaints.

Carson said her office takes a “holistic approach” that emphasizes educating people about the ethics code to avoid violations in the first place.

“If we lose one piece of that, it all falls apart,” she said.

It’s not just the three watchdog agencies that say they are feeling an unfair brunt of the cuts. Other small agencies and organizations, including the nonprofit Connecticut Legal Rights Project, say cuts threaten their core mission.

Project Executive Director Kathleen Flaherty said the organization is facing a deficit of its own in the future, and a 42 percent cut in funding next year would result in a loss of half the group’s 18 person staff.

Flaherty said her agency “prevents people from falling into homelessness” by providing free legal counsel to people with mental health issues, a service becoming more important given the state’s efforts to end chronic homelessness.

While other organizations in the state also offer free legal advice, Flaherty said, few if any are willing to help people with mental health issues in housing cases.

Twitter: @reporter_savino


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