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Why does the Governor want to take over key elements of how the watchdogs work?

Common Cause Connecticut:

Governor Malloy’s budget proposal threatens the independence of the watchdog agencies. His plan will eliminate the watchdog agencies’ independence and make them accountable to him and it completely undermines the integrity of all the work those agencies do. His plan to grab ten attorneys from the State Elections Enforcement Commission, the Office of State Ethics, and Freedom of Information Commission to create a new Office of Hearings that will be accountable to the Governor’s appointee, David Guay – will weaken the agencies’ ability to do the work they need to investigate problems that crop up. SEEC doesn’t even hold many hearings – usually only two a year. To remove all their attorneys means that they will not be able to investigate possible violations of law or ensure that public funding is being used properly.

His plan also removes a protection the legislature put in place to ensure that the administrator of the Office of Government Accountability could be reviewed and terminated by the Government Accountability Commission, a panel made up of representatives of the nine divisions of the superagency created in 2011 by Governor Malloy’s administration. This concentrates power in the hands of the Governor’s appointee – and the Governor. This is completely inappropriate and the danger that this poses to the watchdog agencies cannot be overstated.

In addition, the governor plans to remove 5 IT people, 2 fiscal staff and 3 investigators from Elections Enforcement, making it impossible for them to keep the eCRIS system working or make grants for the Citizens Election Program.

And if that isn’t troubling enough, the Governor’s budget violates an important good government protection the legislature put in place in the wake of the Rowland scandal, when Public Act 4-204 passed to prohibit the governor from reducing the annual budgets of the State Ethics, State Elections Enforcement, and Freedom of Information commissions. The law also requires the Office of Policy and Management (OPM) secretary to include in the proposed budget documents that OPM submits to the legislature the estimates of expenditure requirements, together with any recommended adjustments and revisions that the office receives from the executive directors of the commissions. Governor Malloy ignored the watchdog agency budgets and put in place this new plan. Common Cause cannot state how incredibly important it is to keep this protection in place to insulate the watchdog agencies from potential political pressure from a single politician.

The curious thing about his proposal to further consolidate these agencies is that it delivers little in the way of budget savings, which begs the question: Why would the Governor take over key elements of how the watchdogs work? We do not know the answer to that question but we strongly urge rejection of this plan.

The State Election Enforcement Commission, the Freedom of Information Commission and the Office of State Ethics are each were created to be independent of political pressure because they are charged with: ensuring that elections are conducted in a fair and appropriate way; ensuring that citizens have access to government information and that state business is conducted in an ethical manner.

Unfortunately, we know all too well why we need to ensure the independence of our watchdog agencies. Former Governor John G. Rowland was sentenced to a year in prison and four months of house arrest Friday for selling his office in a corruption scandal and the state responded. The response to the unprecedented corruption we saw was swift action by the General Assembly, with support from then-Governor Rell, to ensure that special interest money was taken out of the equation for election campaigns in the state. Connecticut has taken significant steps to create a landmark clean election program and the State Ethics commission was completely overhauled.

We urge the General Assembly to do what it has done before and affirmatively support the independence of our watchdog agencies by rejecting the Governor’s plan. His plan undermines the good government protections put in place in the wake of tremendous scandal. We cannot go back to the corruption of the past. Please reject efforts to weaken the watchdog agencies.