Political pick but also sensible one

Ben Barnes will not miss a pay check as he completes his eight years as secretary of the Office of Policy and Management and moves into a new job — also in state government — but I don’t expect the professional challenges he faces will get much easier.

The announcement last Monday that Barnes had been hired as the chief financial officer for the state’s college system was greeted with charges of political favoritism. The optics are not good.

After serving the state as its budget director throughout the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Barnes needed a job. And getting a job that continued his employment in state government would let Barnes, now 50, eventually lock up a state pension. That’s what happened.

Mark E. Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, made the hiring announcement. Ojakian served four years as Malloy’s chief of staff, leaving in 2015 to take his current job. During that time Ojakian was Barnes’ boss in the Malloy administration.

Barnes’ new job pays about $209,000, his current one $204,000. He begins Jan. 4.

How convenient.

Yet it would be hard to argue against Barnes’ qualifications. The search for a new CFO began in July because of the pending retirement of Erika Steiner. In September the Connecticut Mirror reported that Barnes was among the finalists. No one, I suspect, knows the intricacies of state finances better than does Barnes.

The fiscal challenges will continue as he transitions to CFO for the higher education system that covers 12 community colleges, four regional universities — Eastern, Central, Southern and Western — and an online university. Serving 82,000 students, CSCU has a combined budget of $1.3 billion.

Reductions in state subsidies and the outfall from a shrinking number of high school graduates in the state will continue to cause financial problems for the higher education system. Ojakian has had modest success in reducing redundant administrative and support positions, but a more aggressive cost-cutting plan foundered when an accrediting group refused to sign on.

Barnes should prove an asset as the Board of Regents continues to confront fiscal challenges.

As budget director, Barnes was candid about the problems Connecticut confronted. When he and Malloy arrived in office in January 2011, Connecticut faced a $3.7 billion projected deficit, nearly 20 percent of budget expenditures at the time. Teacher and state-worker pension accounts had been grossly underfunded for decades. During the last year of Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s time in office, the Democratic-controlled legislature had borrowed $924 million to keep the state operating. The Rainy Day Fund was empty.

As Barnes moves on and Malloy prepares to leave office, the state confronts a projected $1.7 billion deficit, but reserves — meaning the Rainy Day Fund — are expected to reach $2 billion. The pensions remain underfunded, but progress has been made and new state employees are being hired into a hybrid pension/401(K)-type system that should be sustainable.

Barnes would always return my calls and frankly answer my questions.

Sometimes his candor had to cause Malloy to cringe. Asked once why the administration was so eager to tap hospital revenues through taxation, Barnes referenced bank robber Willie Sutton, “That's where the money is.”

In early 2015, shortly after Malloy’s re-election, Barnes told reporters Connecticut had "entered into a period of permanent fiscal crisis in state and local government."

That one he walked back, saying he was just sharing the views of David Osborne, author of “The Price of Government: Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis.”

Nothing has happened since to prove the statement wrong, however.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.



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