Higher ed budget chief welcomes job with tighter focus
Ben Barnes begins a new job this month overseeing the finances for 17 state colleges and universities, an enormous system in transition due to shrinking enrollment and lean state budget support.
Still, Barnes welcomes a job with a narrower focus, relatively speaking, from his last one.
The new chief financial officer for the Board of Regents for Higher Education spent the past eight years grappling with finances for all of state government. His office implemented two mammoth-sized labor concessions deals and took the first steps toward stabilizing a state pension crisis of historic proportions.
Though the OPM chief commonly is referred to as state budget director, managing finances is just one part of the job description. The office also is the chief policy development and planning agency for the Executive Branch and handles the bulk of labor relations for state government.
“My role is going to be smaller in ways that I actually kind of welcome, trying to make this system work better,” Barnes, 50, told the CT Mirror during a late December interview as he wrapped up his duties as secretary of the Office of Policy and Management for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. “Actually it’s kind of refreshing to me. It’s a little wearing, the responsibility to have that big picture view all of the time.
It was Connecticut’s poorly funded retirement benefit programs that came crashing down on the state finances — and on Barnes — like a lead balloon. Pension contributions that totaled $1.1 billion per year, or 6 percent of the General Fund, before Malloy took office, swelled to $2.5 billion, or 13 percent, before he left.
Barnes ranks paying the full bill as one of the administration’s proudest accomplishments.
“Before us, I think nobody really understood what was going on here,” he said. “Things were getting worse without anybody seeing it coming, or anybody understanding that we should be making moves to deal with this.”
Labor concessions deals in 2011 and 2017 would reduce long-term obligations to the state employees’ pension by billions of dollars. The administration also worked with unions to restructure payments, shifting some of the pension debt it inherited until after 2032.
Connecticut still faces some hefty payments in this area for decades to come, but the problem is more manageable and predictable.
Barnes also spent considerable time researching options to stabilize the equally-cash-starved teachers’ pension. Contributions owed to this fund are set to spike between now and the early 2030s.
And while legal restrictions don’t allow Connecticut to restructure and smooth out payments into this fund until the mid-2020s, Barnes said the Malloy administration covered its share of the bill. “I think we laid the groundwork for change,” he said.
Barnes and Malloy would struggle often with budget deficits as Connecticut’s economy recovered slowly from the recession of 2008-2010. That often meant reducing other agencies’ requests for dollars.
Now the roles are reversed and, as CFO for the regents’ system, it will be Barnes’ turn to plead for funding.
Still, Barnes is widely respected throughout the Capitol for the expertise he brought to the job, even when he had to deliver unwelcome news.
“There wasn’t a question that he couldn’t answer,” said Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, co-chairman of the tax-writing Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee. “When we negotiated the budget he always had the details of any policy at his fingertips.”
Rojas also said he appreciated Barnes’ candor, sometimes a rare commodity at the Capitol.
“People appreciate it when you are honest with them,” he said. “They are tired of the BS.”
During the early years of the Malloy administration, Barnes repeatedly engaged in politicallysensitive, high-profile fights over proposed cuts to state watchdog agencies that represented the tiniest of fractions of the overall state budget.
For example, a proposal that the watchdog agencies share attorneys during a time of budget deficits did not go over well.
“That was not the easiest period, … and I thought an all-handson-deck approach might be a good thing, but no,” Barnes said. “I probably should have realized this was an area where the cost savings aren’t worth it. Shame on me for not seeing that coming.”
Barnes made headlines in November 2014, when he told Capitol reporters. “We have entered into a period of permanent fiscal crisis in state and local government, it seems.”
The statement was a face full of cold water to an electorate who, a few days earlier, had reelected Malloy amidst assurances that state finances would be deficit-free.
In Barnes’ defense, many news media left out the second half of his statement: “But that said, I think that we’ve made a lot of progress in trying to find ways to make our government more sustainable.”
That wouldn’t be the only time he made Malloy roll his eyes with his outspokenness, nor the last time he would make a tense relationship even more tense.
When asked by legislators during a February 2015 hearing why the administration was recommending higher taxes for hospitals, Barnes replied: “Why do you rob banks? It’s where the money is.”
The Malloy administration sparred frequently with the hospitals, arguing the industry was unfairly claiming poverty as a way of justifying criticism for dramatically hiking taxes on hospitals.
“He has one hell of a sense of humor, understated and dry — a little bit like mine,” Malloy said. “Maybe that’s one of the reasons we got along so well.”