Lamont wrong to defang important watchdog
Ned Lamont was wrong to strip out funding that the state legislature had approved to help a watchdog agency better do its job of evaluating state contracts. It’s bad policy. It’s bad optics. And it could well come back to bite him.
The creation of the State Contracting Standards Board was among the reforms approved in the wake of the pay-for-play scandal that drove Gov. John G. Rowland out of office and into federal prison in 2004. Its job is to look for questionable stipulations, irregularities, and improprieties in state contracts and bidding procurement procedures. It cannot look at everything. Its attention to a contract or bid can result from questions or complaints.
It not only can uncover outright wrongdoing, but also provisions that waste tax dollars or do not hold to account companies doing business with the state. Its mere existence can discourage those who might consider taking unfair advantage.
Governors have generally not been enamored with one more watchdog sniffing about. Past administrations have contended that its services are duplicative of the work done by attorneys for the state and the reviews conducted by the Auditors of Public Accounts. During the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, there were multiple attempts to stop funding the contracting review board.
This legislature sees things differently, viewing the board as an asset to uncover problems and deter sloppiness, and worse, in contracts and bidding. It heard the board’s call for help to do its job better than it can with only one paid position, Executive Director David Guay, and the work of the unpaid board members.
The legislature responded with a $450,000 annual expenditure to provide paid staff, including a chief procurement officer, research analyst, staff attorney, and an accounts examiner.
But as Jon Lender reports in the Hartford Courant, it was all for naught. The governor, the chief executive officer, wiped out the funds, leaving only the executive director salary in place.
Lamont’s communications director, Max Reiss, called it “flat funding” and noted the board is “getting the same level of funding that (it) received in recent years.”
It is highly selective flat funding.
Lamont is a big fan of public-private partnerships, arguing that leveraging private dollars can allow the state to get more done less expensively, while bolstering business. Those are complex contracts. Having a board study them chapter and verse can lead to questions and delays, to embarrassing revelations and demands for changes. We suspect that’s at the heart of the governor’s reluctance to give this watchdog too many teeth.
The governor is riding high. He did a good job of managing the pandemic and of communicating about it with the public. Lamont’s approval ratings are strong. He pushed against any tax increases in the budget recently approved in bipartisan fashion by the legislature, and he prevailed in that effort.
But we caution him against hubris. Nothing can drag down approval ratings faster than a scandal. And it doesn't have to directly involve the governor, just be close enough to singe his good standing. Watchdog agencies may be an inconvenience, but they can also be smoke detectors of sorts, sounding the alarm before an ember in the form contractual favoritism sparks a fire that is left to the governor to put out.
The contracting board showed its worth in February when it raised questions about the Connecticut Port Authority, including its payment of a large “success fee” to a firm that helped it select an operator for State Pier in New London. State Attorney General William Tong has confirmed his office is taking a look at that.
It was also responsible for blowing the whistle on the Capital Region Development Authority’s flawed contracting process for the Dillon Stadium renovation in Hartford.
It could be argued, we suppose, that the port authority and Dillon Stadium examples show the contracting board can get the job done with existing resources. But our take − and that of the legislature − is that the watchdog could do an even better job with more resources. The governor is not doing his image or the state any good by standing in the way.
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 Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser 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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