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Panel that will direct $100M in state dollars should operate openly

When the General Assembly returns for a special session to complete its unfinished business, lawmakers should consider correcting a major mistake from this recently completed regular session. Specifically, the legislature should undo the Freedom of Information exemption they gifted Dalio Philanthropies in exchange for a $100 million donation for public education.

Included in the state’s two-year, $43-billion budget was the creation of the Partnership for Connecticut Inc., a nonprofit organization that will decide how best to disperse up to $300 million to improve education.

Nonprofits are not typically subject to the Freedom of Information Act, but state government also does not typically have this much involvement in a nonprofit.

Billionaires Ray and Elizabeth Dalio donated $100 million for the purpose of improving public education in poorer communities. Their contribution came with conditions, including requiring the state of Connecticut to contribute $100 million and for the new Partnership for Connecticut to seek private donations totaling another $100 million.

The budget exempts the Partnership for Connecticut from the disclosure and open meeting requirements of the FOI Act, instead only stipulating that the committee members provide two reports a year. Thus, this new organization does not have to make public its agendas, meeting dates or minutes, and there’s no assurance that interested citizens can attend.

This is not meant to disparage the Dalios or impugn their motives. Connecticut’s education system has long had one of the nation’s widest achievement gaps, and the Dalios should be commended for their desire to change that.

It’s the precedent that is troubling: Want to dictate how $300 million gets spent? Just provide a conditional donation to the state, and Gov. Ned Lamont and lawmakers will provide an FOI exemption. In effect, there’re treating this new partnership as if it’s a run-of-the-mill nonprofit organization.

“It’s an independent nonprofit,” Maribel La Luz, a spokeswoman for Lamont, said recently. “It’s not a public agency, it’s not a quasi (public agency).”

Except that this organization likely would be considered public if the Freedom of Information Commission were allowed to apply the “functional equivalent” test the state Supreme Court established in 1980 for situations just like this. Essentially, the test provides answers as to whether an organization needs to follow the FOI Act.

This new corporation performs a government function by funding education; will get one-third of its budget from the state; will require that five of the 13 seats on the board are filled by elected officials; and was created by a government act.

La Luz said the new organization needs the ability to act quickly. She also said the requirement for at least two reports strikes a balance between that need and an interest in transparency.

“We’re not saying ‘don’t hold us accountable,’” she said.

But that accountability was the intent when the FOI Act was adopted in 1975. Then-Gov. Ella Grasso and lawmakers, looking to rebuild trust after Watergate, created the FOI Act so the public could access information on its own.

During last year’s campaign, Lamont signed a pledge to protect and preserve the FOI Act. In the same pledge, he promised to do whatever he could to ensure a public hearing on changes to the FOI Act. Neither of those things happened here, and lawmakers need to remedy that by requiring the Partnership for Connecticut to follow the FOI Act.

Mike Savino is president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. He is also a reporter for WFSB.



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