The News-Times

Republican­s in state Senate want relief oversight

- By Ken Dixon Twitter: @KenDixonCT

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.”

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