Malloy’s cuts of watchdog budgets must not stand

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The League of Women Voters of Connecticut takes seriously its role of looking out for the integrity of the voting and electoral process.

We naturally became concerned when catastrophic budget cuts were proposed for the State Elections Enforcement Commission, the elections watchdog agency set up in the wake of the Rowland scandal and charged with the authority to protect the integrity of the electoral process.

The SEEC and other watchdog agencies were intentionally given protected budgets for the express purpose of insulating them from political retribution and being made into mere pawns for whatever political authority controlled their budgets at a given time.

A jointly written letter dated July 6, 2016, to the Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management by the state’s watchdog agencies – SEEC, the Office of State Ethics and the Freedom of Information Commission – points out the catastrophic nature of the proposed budget cuts and their apparent illegality. Nevertheless, Secretary Benjamin Barnes, in his response, nearly a month later, declares the laws protecting those agencies budgets from political attack not “germane” to his decisions to reduce those budgets.

Such a conclusion appears to render the protective laws no more than window dressing, to be disregarded at will by the use of clever rhetoric as a substitute for the intent and purpose of the law. The League of Women Voters of Connecticut urges a prompt review of this issue by the Attorney General.

In the same letter, Secretary Barnes attempts to characterize his cuts as insubstantial and claims that the watchdog agencies “were not unfairly or disproportionally targeted.” The notion of proportionality calls for a comparison of how the “holdbacks” were distributed.

We have reviewed the budget books and observe that the holdbacks to legislatively allocated budgets across all state agencies appear to have been assigned on no more than an arbitrary basis. Holdbacks in personnel budgets of state agencies ranged from a low of .3 percent to a high of 3.67 percent. This yields an average cut of 2.2 percent with a standard deviation of .653.

Cuts in “other expenses” ranged from 1.45 percent to 3.63 percent. These cuts had an average of 1.73 percent with a standard deviation of .32. The correlation between the value of cuts to personnel budgets and “Other Expenses” budgets was essentially negligible. That is, the budget cuts made under the holdback scheme imposed by Secretary Barnes do not appear to follow any policy purpose or trend other than where he thinks he might be able to reallocate money.

Such a process undermines the legislature and expresses precisely the problem the watchdog budget laws were designed to prevent.

While the League of Women Voters of Connecticut is anxious to see our state’s budget return to full functionality and sustainability, we object to disabling our state watchdog agencies from doing their jobs effectively, robustly, and sustainably. The confidence of the voters in the process and the outcome is at stake.

Dan M. Smolnik is the director of government affairs for the Connecticut League of Women Voters.

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