Republicans in state Senate want relief oversight
Republicans in the state Senate on Thursday outlined a legislative goal to increase public transparency of federal funding, including $5.4 billion in infrastructure support over the next five years and $300 million for combating the opioid epidemic the state will receive by the year 2040.
Several times during a 40-minute news conference in the State Capitol, Senate Minority Leader
Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford and members of his caucus pointed to the arrest last year of Michael DiMassa of West Haven, who as a Democratic state representative and city employee allegedly diverted $636,000 in federal COVID relief funding.
“All Connecticut residents deserve a government that is transparent and accountable,” said Kelly, whose caucus is outnumbered 23-13 heading into the short, budget-adjustment session of the General Assembly that starts Feb. 9. “The sacrifices of taxpayers must always, always, be respected. Connecticut has an obligation to ensure that every taxpayer dollar is spent wisely and fully transparent.”
He pointed to the death of a Hartford high schooler last week from an overdose of fentanyl. “No parent should ever have to go through that,” Kelly said. “It is clear that the presence of drugs and opioids in particular are pervasive right now in our state. We must do everything we can to safeguard funds meant to fight addiction and keep our children, our families and our loved ones safe.”
Kelly noted that the historic nationwide settlement with the tobacco industry more than 20 years ago brought billions of dollars to Connecticut, but only a small portion was used for prevention and education. The Republicans called for the creation of a special website for taxpayers to track federal funding.
“We believe that we should have a moreconsistent framework of reporting,” said Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, ranking member of the budget-setting Appropriations Committee. “We should have a more-consistent framework of communicating. I think that most people go about spending state and federal dollars the right way, but the last thing we want to do is to find out that we have pots of money going unspent and still have all the problems that are being discussed here.”
In reaction to the GOP news conference, state Sen. Cathy Osten, DSprague, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said that the Republicans raised similar issues last month. Osten noted that Melissa McCaw, who as secretary of the state Office of Policy and Management is Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget chief, has hired an independent auditor to pinpoint federal spending.
Osten said she expects to invite McCaw to update the committee when the 12-week legislative session begins. Osten noted that on the federal level, the Office of Inspector General tracks local spending.
“In addition, every municipality has a regular audit every year, as well as a state and federal single audit,” Osten said in a phone interview. “There are so many ways this money is being looked at.” She said that in the West Haven case, transparency yielded the pending criminal case against DiMassa, who immediately resigned his post in the House, as well as his position as administrator of the city council.
“I certainly agree with auditing,” Osten said. “I certainly agree with transparency. The secretary will certainly will be asked whether there have been any problems similar to West Haven.”
Lamont, answering reporters’ questions during his virtual news conference on the COVID pandemic, said he favors transparency and that there are a variety of public watchdogs and disclosures.
“We’ve got to earn the trust of the taxpayers every day,” Lamont said, noting the presence of independent auditors checking on the way federal dollars are being spent, as well as the state’s Auditors of Public Accounts, which oversees state expenditures. “If we see anything untoward you’ll know about it.”
Paul Mounds Jr., Lamont’s chief of staff, jumped in to support Lamont, adding that McCaw presents detailed reports on spending each month to the Comptroller, including federal pandemic support.
“I understand what Sen. Kelly and his caucus are saying, but we’ve got to make sure that we’re dealing in the world of truth,” Mounds said. “And the truth is, this is a transparent administration. It has always been and will continue to do so, no matter what dollars are coming through to the state coffers.”