Opinion: More information needed on state finances

Gov. Ned Lamont addresses the combined House and Senate during the opening day of the 2022 legislative session at the Capitol in Hartford in February.

Gov. Ned Lamont addresses the combined House and Senate during the opening day of the 2022 legislative session at the Capitol in Hartford in February.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

There are large amounts of state spending information that is hidden. Some reasons for this are basic. Governmental divisions are focused on their required functions and little attention is paid elsewhere. Why would it when there is no incentive since government workers tend to get standard pay increases? And if one does pursue some innovative thinking, they risk a likely backlash from the status quo work culture.

But there is another reason that is not so innocent: those who purposefully keep data under tight control so that they can cherry pick it to support policy goals and hide defects.

For example, the governor under CGS 4-71 submits a budget proposal every February to the legislature. The governor’s accompanying budget document is prepared by the Office of Policy and Management and is impressive at almost 300 pages. But it is deceiving. It contains the budgets and line items of each appropriated agency along with basic bullet point descriptions of each change to the base budget (and other various summary information). But very little information is presented about the programs and performance of the huge underlying $24 billion base budget.

And the final budget ( HB 5506 ), passed by the legislature in April contained almost no detail at all except for budget line item names (as well as multitudinous sections (517!) most of which have nothing to do with the budget. The fiscal note and bill analysis prepared by the legislature’s nonpartisan offices offer some basic information, but there is too much needed in too short a time. The legislature must wait until August to get a budget information document similar to the detail presented by the governor, but again, it mostly describes the 6.4 percent in net changes to the prior year’s budget.

What most people do not know is that every fall OPM prepares instructions for budgeted agencies to develop budget requests to properly fund their existing operations. In a biennial (odd-numbered) year, agencies start budget formulation with whatever is expected to be spent in the current year to develop requested funding for the coming two years. Additional information is provided for agencies to request expansions/reductions and often mandated reduction options. Agencies naturally pick the most politically untenable area to reduce (like a legally mandated service), thereby technically fulfilling the mandate while reducing the risk of a cut. Sometimes creativity will come into play, such as my personal favorite: “This reduction option is provided with the caveat that it not be taken.”

You can find these budget instructions on the OPM website. What you can’t find? The 61 agency budget requests/options. You might think that agencies may publish them on their websites. Nope, they have never been published for the public that I have ever seen. Since these agency budget requests are what OPM uses to create the governor’s budget proposal, and the legislature works off this proposal to generate the final budget, you might think allowing the public to see these originating documents might be appropriate.

Another problem area is lack of compliance with required basic financial and personnel reporting. Under CGS 4-77 , every agency is required to publish basic monthly reports on appropriated expenditures to date and personnel counts along with projections of what will be spent or anticipated personnel changes to the end of the year. Agencies often avoid or fail to prepare these reports.

Since 2009, monthly reports are also required on non-appropriated funds, which total more than $10 billion and are made up primarily of state managed federal funds (about $7 billion) but also a range of other funds. These other funds range from higher education operating reserves to tire disposal fees, charges on electric bills, charges on cable bills, etc. These funds do not go through a budget process and therefore are considered “off-budget,” are essentially on auto-pilot and do not count toward the spending cap. Money is taken in, spent and balances carried, all with little to no oversight.

None of these basic reports, even when produced, are published anywhere. And performance management reports in government? Just about nonexistent. Reports that are published are generally not comprehensive and are almost all about program statistics, not about how well programs and staff are performing. But it is hard enough just to find basic statistics on programs. Sadly, most of the best information — on Medicaid, for example, a massive $3 billion-plus spending program — is found on websites not run by the state.

And the above does not even include over $3 billion in bonding for college buildings, bridges, various town projects, etc., that are authorized by statute and that must goes through the State Bond Commission for allocation approval. Once approved, the funding is handed over to agencies and is largely ignored except by auditors.

Finally there are tax expenditures , which total about $9 billion per year. Tax expenditures are not actually “expenditures” in the traditional sense — they result in a loss or foregone tax revenue, for instance, tax breaks and tax credits for groups of individuals or organizations such as the lack of sales tax on groceries, certain contributions to college savings accounts and sales tax exemptions for prescription drugs. These items get no review.

Trying to do research on government spending and program efficiency is almost impossible with the resources that are available publicly. So much for governmental transparency.

Alan Calandro, of Burlington, is an unaffiliated voter and former director of Connecticut’s nonpartisan legislative Office of Fiscal Analysis, former chief of staff at the University of Connecticut and writer on Substack.