At the beginning of the 2009 legislative session lawmakers from both parties were talking about the need to radically restructure how Connecticut government delivers services in the face of the budget crisis.
And a few months later the General Assembly formed a bi-partisan Commission on Enhancing Agency Outcomes charged with studying how to streamline government.
But when the dust from the lengthy budget battle settled in late summer the commission had missed it’s July 1 deadline for issuing recommendations and the biggest reform achieved in the new two-year budget was the elimination of the Office of Property Rights Ombudsman.
But the Commission is not ready to say “uncle” particularly since the budget deficit continues to worsen. Today the group, co-chaired by Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford and Rep. James Spallone, D-Essex, finally released a preliminary list of recommendations or “areas of focus,” which will be the topic of a Dec. 14 public hearing at the capitol.
And the Commission has new deadlines. The initial report to the General Assembly is now due Feb. 1 – just in time for the start of the short, 2010 legislative session, when lawmakers are expected to dig back into the two-year budget and make necessary changes.
A full report is due no later than December 31, 2010, in time for the 2011 session when a newly elected Governor and General Assembly will craft a budget for fiscal years 2011-12 and 2012-13.
“This is our opportunitiy to create a smarter government and a more efficient government,” Slossberg said in a statement.
That was the same message from Hartford nearly a year ago. Time will tell if they mean it this time. If not, voters may decide to restructure government when they head to the polls next November.
Here’s the story The Advocate carried this past July about the Commission’s missing it’s initial deadline.
July 1 marked the start of Connecticut’s new fiscal year, but it was also an important deadline for a legislative report that was supposed to be a road map for streamlining state government in the face of the budget crisis.
But the bipartisan group of lawmakers and state officials in charge of the project has not met for weeks, and there is some doubt about whether it will ever convene again.
In late February, the Democratic-majority General Assembly passed legislation creating a Commission on Enhancing Agency Outcomes. The group, which met for the first time March 18, was charged with issuing recommendations by the start of this month.
But according to its Web site, members, including state Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, and state Rep. John Hetherington, R-New Canaan, only convened one more time, on April 24. And while some, particularly William Cibes, former state budget chief under Gov. Lowell Weicker Jr., have submitted their own ideas, no final document was produced.
“There were some subcommittee meetings, but we haven’t had a full meeting in two or three months,” said state Sen. Dan Debicella, R-Shelton, who was appointed to the group.
During the first meeting, co-chairmen state Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, and state Rep. James Spallone, D-Essex, said they faced a challenging time frame because of the state budget schedule.
By the time the commission met in March, Democrats were already well along crafting an initial two-year budget proposal in the hopes of reaching a deal with Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell by July 1.
Budget talks were at a standstill for weeks, and two weeks ago, Democrats unveiled and passed a revised version of their April budget, which Rell vetoed July 1. The two sides have since been in negotiations.
Slossberg, who has opposed her party’s budgets for not containing enough savings, on Tuesday blamed the commission’s slow progress on a lack of cooperation from state agencies. She said the group has not received responses to various questions about current operations.
“It’s pretty hard to reorganize when the administration closes off lines of communications,” Slossberg said, pointing a finger at Rell. “Some responses have been trickling in now.”
Jeffrey Beckham, a budget office spokesman, said Tuesday that the administration has cooperated. The commission also included representatives from Rell’s budget staff.
But Beckham said it takes time for agencies to respond to the commission’s inquiries because state employees are busy with their daily workload and are coping with the early retirements of a few thousand staffers.
The commission’s work also faced public apathy. Hearings scheduled for the spring and early summer throughout the state were canceled because of poor turnout.
Cibes said the commission’s ability to meet was also hampered by the rushed final few weeks of the 2009 legislative session, which wrapped up in early June.
“What caused the real delay in anything final happening was that all the members except three of us were entirely committed to legislative work,” Cibes said. “So there were only a few opportunities to get together. “| But I do think there are a lot of fruitful suggestions that could well be further investigated.”
And, Cibes said, Democrats involved with the budget Rell vetoed predicted that with the commission’s help, they could achieve tens of millions of dollars in savings.
But it is unclear whether the commission will met again or simply be allowed to expire.
Slossberg said the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, which she also co-chairs with Spallone, might prove a better forum for pursuing reform.
She said she believes there remains plenty of time to do the work.
“The reality is while people may be looking for the short-term solution in this year’s budget, the really scary time is two years out, when the federal stimulus money is gone, and all the rainy day fund money is gone, and the one-time revenue sources disappear, and we’re suddenly hanging on a cliff coming out of this recession and have an even bigger (budget) hole,” she said. “That’s when it’s most important for us to have solutions in place, ready to go.”
Debicella said he is skeptical, saying that lawmakers’ shelves are stacked with reports from various commissions on numerous topics that sit gathering dust. Since 1977, there have been eight proposals to restructure Connecticut government in some way.
“Could it have been worthwhile? Could it still be? Yes, if we take some ideas and put them into budget negotiations,” Debicella said of the commission. “But I don’t think it’s been successful as it was originally envisioned.”