Connecticut whittles away at its watchdog agencies

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In her op-ed in The Connecticut Mirror, State Rep. Mary Mushinsky (D-Wallingford) writes about an unanticipated, end-of-the-legislative-session, 50 percent cut to the personnel budget of the General Assembly’s Office of Program Review and Investigations:

“The Office of Program Review and Investigations is the nonpartisan staff office that supports the oversight work of the bipartisan Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee. At the direction of the committee, PRI staff examines state programs and systems to determine efficiency, effectiveness, compliance with legislative purposes, and whether corrective actions, modification, or elimination are necessary.”

Rep. Mushinsky reasonably asks, “How does silencing the state’s efficiency experts help the state adjust to less revenues and a leaner government? And why is this cut far more extensive than other line-item reductions?”

Her answer: “The more likely explanation is that at least one of the [state budget] negotiators wanted to eliminate the committee and seized the opportunity to end the scrutiny of state agencies and programs. Program Review and Investigations has been diligently critiquing state government since 1972.”

Rep. Mushinksy is right to be concerned about whether committees like Program Review and Investigations are being targeted, not to save money in difficult financial times, but to undermine their oversight function.  Other watchdog agencies, such as the Freedom of Information Commission, Office of State Ethics and State Elections and Enforcement Commission, have also suffered disproportionate cuts to their personnel budgets. As a good government advocate, I worry about these cuts.

Legislative leaders assure the public that the disproportionate cuts to these committees and agencies are not intended to neuter their watchdog functions. But the fact remains that the cuts are unwise. In the context of a $20 billion budget, the savings realized by cutting personnel from these small agencies are minimal. And the long-term costs of the cuts, measured in terms of lost efficiencies and good governance, far outweigh the minimal savings.

Like Rep. Mushinsky, I respectfully urge the General Assembly to reconsider the magnitude of the proposed cuts to Program Review and Investigations and the three watchdog agencies. Yes, the state budget needs to adjust to the new economic normal. But some cuts are wise, while others are unwise.  Disproportionate cuts to the personnel of committees and agencies that serve important oversight functions are unwise.

Dan Klau is an attorney with McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP. His opinions are his own and not those of his law firm. 

He is the President of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and the immediate Past President of the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government. 

What do you think?

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