Connecticut’s financially-handcuffed contracting watchdog took another step Friday toward securing its first investigative staff in its 15-year history.
But the State Contracting Standards Board also watched a second proposal, to expand its authority to investigate all quasi-public entities created by the legislature, die for this year.
The Senate voted 35-0 Friday evening to approve a bill that prohibits the governor from imposing cuts — after the state’s fiscal year is underway — on the standards board. The legislature already extends this protection to other watchdog agencies — such as the Freedom of Information Commission and the Office of State Ethics.
Advocates for the contracting watchdog hope that this measure — coupled with an announcement this week that roughly $450,000 would be added to the board’s budget starting July 1 — would translate into its first-ever investigative staff being hired by the fall.
“The people of Connecticut should have the utmost confidence in what the state of Connecticut does in their name,” said Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, co-chairwoman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee.
The measure now heads to the House, which still has until the regular legislative session adjourns on Wednesday to consider bills.
The board was the linchpin of the “Clean Contracting” system created in 2007 by the Democrat-controlled legislature and Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell in response to the contracting scandals that drove Republican Gov. John G. Rowland from office three years earlier. Rowland served 10 months in federal prison after admitting he accepted about $100,000 in gifts from state contractors and his staff.
The board was empowered to review Executive Branch agencies’ contracting processes to ensure they were transparent, cost-efficient and in compliance with the law. It also would have authority to suspend any procurement effort deemed improper.
But over the succeeding 15 years, legislatures and governors never authorized enough funding for the 14-member board to hire more than an executive director or an office assistant.
Pressure from legislators to strengthen the contracting watchdog has intensified steadily over the past three years
The contracting board’s unpaid members began volunteering their time in 2019, trying to investigate scandals tied to the Connecticut Port Authority. But they initially were rebuffed on grounds their jurisdiction was limited to traditional state agencies, and not to quasi-publics — both of which are created by the General Assembly.
The 2021 legislature granted the board special powers to probe the port authority, and budgeted $454,000 to fund hiring an investigative staff — but then used a technical maneuver at the last minute to effectively take the funds away.
The reversal was done to accommodate Gov. Ned Lamont, who argued at the time that the contracting watchdog was unnecessary and that other state agencies performed similar functions — a claim the contract board disputes.
But Lamont modified his stance as the 2022 legislative session began in early February, about the same time media reports disclosed the FBI is investigating school construction work and other projects once overseen by Lamont’s former deputy budget director, Konstantinos Diamantis.
Flexer, Sampson and the bipartisan group of legislators who worked on the bill approved by the Senate on Friday, originally included one other provision. This would have broadened the contracting board’s jurisdiction to include the state’s 14 other quasi-public entities, adding groups such as the Connecticut Lottery Corporation, the Capital Region Development Authority, the Connecticut Green Bank and the state’s airport authority.
It also would have empowered the standards board to investigate municipal contracting practices.
But that provision ran into heavy opposition from quasi-publics, and supporters agreed Friday to remove it from the bill that cleared the Senate.
The lottery corporation testified before lawmakers earlier this spring that its contracts require “critical knowledge” of gaming, technology and related regulations.
“It is unlikely that the SCSB [State Contracting Standards Board] has the expertise to properly, and timely, vet the industry-specific vendors and policies, leading to unnecessary, extensive delays in the CLC’s revenue-generating activities,” the corporation wrote.
The Green Bank, which leverages public dollars to attract private investment in clean energy, testified that its mission could be imperiled if contracts “would be forced to ricochet between bureaucratic organizations unaffiliated with the mission.”
House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Friday morning that majority Democrats in the House hadn’t caucused the bill yet, but he and others were aware of the quasi-public agencies’ concerns.
“I need the CRDA [Capital Region Development Authority] to be able to do what they have to do,” Ritter said of the quasi-public that oversees millions of dollars in investments in economic development, housing and entertainment projects in the greater Hartford area.
Lamont’s office did not comment after the Senate approved the bill.
Flexer and Sen. Rob Sampson of Wolcott — the ranking GOP senator on the government administration committee — said they believe quasi-public entities should receive the same oversight that traditional state agencies face, but also didn’t want to scuttle an opportunity to finally secure an investigative staff for the watchdog group.
“It certainly does not go as far as we originally desired,” Sampson said. “The constituents we represent deserve to have an increased level of transparency and accountability.”
West Hartford Democrat Lawrence Fox, who chairs the contracting board, said the bill that passed the Senate is a huge step forward, even absent that extra oversight.
“I’m very very pleased with where things are,” Fox said. “I’m pleased for Connecticut. We’re finally going to have the ability for this board to function the way it should function.”
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