Fix, don't eliminate, quasi-public agencies

Gov. Ned Lamont emerged from a meeting with state legislative leaders Wednesday with a seeming bipartisan agreement that quasi-public agencies can continue to play an important role for the state, but need greater oversight and accountability to prevent abuses.

This appears to be the right balance.

Somewhat ironically, the discussion in Hartford between the governor and top Democratic and Republican legislative leaders about the importance of transparency for these agencies took place behind closed doors. The secrecy was defensible, we suppose, in the interest of encouraging more candor and less grandstanding. Still …

The theory behind quasi-public agencies is that they can better meet some public policy needs by being more agile and business-like in their approach, as opposed to state bureaucracies that can be so weighed down by rules, regulations and an overabundance of caution that deals can’t get done or decisions made.

There are 15 such agencies in Connecticut.

Yet this greater freedom has also led to abuse. Most recently in the news has been the problems at the Connecticut Port Authority, created under legislation first introduced in 2014 to improve the use and economic power of the state’s deep-water ports in New London, New Haven and Bridgeport, and maritime commerce generally. For decades, under the domain of the Department of Transportation, the ports had fallen far short of their potential.

Investigative reporting by Day columnist David Collins has disclosed that port authority purchases were made in clear disregard for blatant conflicts of interest, while some consultants were seemingly employed because of who they knew, not what they knew. Two chairmen resigned in short order.

But that is not the lone quasi-public agency with issues. Access Health CT paid out about $679,000 in in severance pay without board review in 2014 and 2015, a recent audit found. The Connecticut Lottery Corporation has been under fire for questionable severance payouts and mismanagement.

Yet, even with these problems, the agencies have shown their value. The port authority signed a long-term deal for management of State Pier in New London that significantly exceeded revenues from the prior contract and has positioned the pier as a hub for offshore wind power development. Access Health manages among the most successful health exchanges in the country. And the Lottery has contributed $10 billion to the state’s general fund.

The challenge, then, is to achieve the benefits without the abuses. The checks in place are already significant. The quasi-publics are subject to freedom of information and ethics laws. They are audited. They must submit to the governor and auditor annual reports outlining projects, all individuals or firms receiving more than $5,000, a balance sheet, and a description of planned activities. They also report to the Office of Fiscal Analysis.

The problem, it appears, is whether anyone pays attention. Problems with accounting at the port authority, for example, were flagged early on, but largely ignored.

The General Assembly should pass a law requiring the appropriate legislative committees to annually review quasi-public agency reports and take testimony from the leaders of these agencies and the general public.

These committees should render annual findings whether the agencies are meeting their missions. The 15 agencies should not continue in perpetuity without question.

Consistent rules should be enacted to guide severance payments and bonuses.

Lamont, working in bipartisan fashion with state legislative leaders, can improve the performance and accountability of these quasi-public agencies and, potentially, eliminate or restructure those that are not working effectively.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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