Appropriations Committee Proposes Restoring Watchdog Independence

Yesterday the Appropriations Committee of the General Assembly voted on a major spending bill that would cut $570 million from the state budget, yet still falls over $300 million short of filling a $900 million deficit facing the state. (CT News Junkie, the CT Mirror and the Courant all have extensive stories on the bill.)

For open government advocates, there is a golden nugget buried in the bill, but also very troubling news.

First, the golden nugget. As reflected on page 50 of the bill, the committee proposes to “Re-establish the Watchdog Agencies as Independent Agencies.” That is, the bill would remove the Freedom of Information Commission, Elections Enforcement Commission and the Office of State Ethics from the Office of Governmental Accountability. The GAC is an umbrella agency created early in the Malloy administration’s first term as part of an effort to save money through consolidation. It was a good idea in theory, but not in practice. Kudos to the co-chairs of the Appropriations Committee (Sen. Beth Bye and Rep. Toni Walker) and to all the committee members who supported this proposal.  Let’s hope it becomes law.

The very troubling news is that the spending bill imposes draconian cuts on the Freedom of Information Commission’s budget.  The FOIC currently has 15 allotted positions (down from 23 in 2011).  As I read the new spending bill, it cuts the FOIC’s budget by approximately $240,000, which would require a staff reduction of 3-4 people. For a 15 person agency, that is absolutely devastating.

I fully understand that state government must adjust to a new economic normal, and that all agencies, and the constituencies they serve, will feel pain. But watchdog agencies serve a critically important function in our democracy. A government without appropriate oversight is a government without meaningful accountability. A 3-4 person reduction in the FOIC staff is much too much. I call upon all open government advocates to let the Appropriations Committee know that the proposed cuts go much too far.

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