With a federal probe investigating the finances of his 2014 re-election bid, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s administration made an announcement early this month that sparked a political firestorm: the state will proceed with cutting $183,000 from three government watchdog agencies meant to combat corruption. Weeks later, on Aug. 19, following a barrage of criticism from both sides of the aisle, he reversed that decision.
Malloy backed down and restored the $183,000 in question to the State Elections Enforcement Commission, the Office of State Ethics and the Freedom of Information Commission, making the announcement after a meeting with the three agencies’ heads.
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano ’81, R-North Haven, took the announcement as a victory, but vowed that the fight to protect clean government in Connecticut has not yet ended.
“To see that a complete turnaround from the governor’s office did not come until after I sought a formal opinion from the attorney general on the matter is very telling,” Fasano said in a statement.
The cuts first drew criticism when they were announced in early July. These denunciations only multiplied in early August when Malloy’s administration doubled down on its position. At issue was not only the funding itself, but also whether Malloy and his appointees have the legal power to unilaterally rescind already budgeted funding from the watchdog committees.
The controversy began in July before the probe was launched but escalated in August when the directors of the three good-government agencies sent a formal letter to Ben Barnes, Malloy’s budget chief, requesting an explanation for the withholding of funds. They argued that a 2004 law, intended to protect the independence of the watchdogs, bans the executive branch from making unilateral cuts in the agencies’ funding, citing legislative debates that occurred before the passage of the law.
Barnes responded in early August, and it was his written response which touched off bipartisan fury in Hartford. Speaking for Malloy, Barnes wrote that he disagreed with the agencies’ interpretation of the statute, noting that the agencies “were not unfairly or disproportionately targeted in assigning the holdbacks.” He asked the agency heads to “continue to recognize [their] shared responsibility to act in partnership rather than contest the application of the holdbacks.”
“Please let me know whether you are willing to do your part,” Barnes’ Aug. 2 letter ended. Then the tensions escalated.
Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, chair of the Appropriations Committee, was among the first and must virulent critics of Barnes’ stance, declaring it “totally inappropriate” and herself “vehemently” opposed.
Looking through American history, and to Malloy’s own predecessors in the governor’s chair, the need for a robust slate of watchdogs is self-evident, she said in a statement.
“From Watergate to Rowland-gate, we are all too familiar with the willful destruction of the public trust by those in power,” Walker said. “The watchdogs cannot face additional cuts outside of the budget process and do their job effectively.”
Fasano, a persistent critic of Malloy and the Connecticut Democrats, joined in the chorus, decrying the cuts as part of a pattern that has hurt the confidence of citizens in their own government, noting that the cuts were made as Malloy faces a federal investigation into his re-election campaign’s finances.
In a statement released Aug. 4, the day Barnes’ letter was made public, Fasano argued that Malloy never had the power to cut the watchdogs’ funding unilaterally. Even if he did have the power, Fasano said, the watchdogs should remain untouched.
Later in the month, Fasano formally requested an opinion on the legality of the cuts from Attorney General George Jepsen, a Democrat. In an Aug. 16 letter to Jepsen, Fasano laid out his case for the illegality of Malloy’s action, asking that Jepsen present his own opinion on the matter.
Fasano and Walker were joined by a host of voices from around the state, all of them denouncing the cuts. The editorial board of the Norwich Bulletin noted that an upcoming ethics panel decision on Insurance Commissioner Katharine Wade’s role in the controversial proposed merger of the insurance companies Anthem and Cigna means the administration cannot claim the ability to act “objectively.”
The Bulletin’s editorial urged Malloy to reverse the cuts, writing that “it is crucial that [the watchdogs] remain independent, and therefore insulated from the gubernatorial budget ax.”
The summer’s drama is not the first time that Malloy’s plans to cut funds from good-government agencies has landed him in hot water. In December, his proposal to gut the Citizens’ Election Program, which provides public funds for state elections, prompted outcry from the Democratic base and led to a rapid backtracking from the governor’s office.