News Flash: What the Hell is going on…Malloy snubs nose at Connecticut law

Earlier today, Connecticut’s Board of Regents for Higher Education met and voted to forward three names to Governor Malloy with the request that he pick one to serve as President of the combined State University and Community College System.

But the fact is that neither the Board of Regents nor the Governor has the authority to make the choice in this way.

According to Connecticut law, the Governor nominates the majority of the members of the Board of Regents and, according to the new Board of Regents law passed in 2011, “The Governor shall appoint the chairperson of the board…”

However when it comes to choosing the President of the Connecticut Board of Regents system, the law is absolutely and completely clear.

Section 10a-1b of the Connecticut State Statutes reads, “(a) The Governor shall appoint an interim president of the Board of Regents for Higher Education who shall serve as president until a successor is appointed and confirmed. On or after January 1, 2012, the president of the Board of Regents for Higher Education shall be recommended by the board and appointed by the Governor…”

Governor Malloy did appoint an interim President who was forced to resign after it was discovered that he inappropriately provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses to his staff.

And now it is “on or after January 1, 2012.”

The law is that, “the president of the Board of Regents for Higher Education shall be recommended by the board and appointed by the Governor…”

According to a story that has been posted on the CTMirror website, the Chairman of the Board of Regents, appointed by Malloy, said that the board sent three names for Governor Malloy to pick from following “a request from the governor’s chief of staff to do so.”

The CT Mirror reports that Board of Regents Chairman Lewis Robinson said, “Which ever one he chooses, we have a fine leader…I think all three are outstanding. I am excited.”

But as the CT Mirror goes on to note, “State law requires the board to recommend “the president” to the governor. The board’s decision was announced during a two-minute public meeting following an hour-long meeting of the board behind closed doors.”

“The governor had requested three. And I thought as a courtesy or respect to his office, it would be appropriate to accede to that wish,” Robinson told the CT Mirror.

But the law is the law.

And, this is a law that the Governor’s Chief of Staff helped write and personally lobbied.

If the Governor and General Assembly meant to have the Board of Regents forward three names to a sitting governor so that the governor could then wheel and deal, they would have done that.

Instead it was written in a way similar to the law for the University of Connecticut.

Connecticut law has always been clear that it is not the role of politicians to decide which academic should run our institutions of higher education.

Instead, the approach has always been that governors nominate and legislatures approved the members of the various boards who then have the duty to make the key personnel decisions removed, or at least somewhat, from the realm of partisan and personal politics.

The debate about how best to choose the President of the Board of Regents took place two years ago.  A process was decided and that process was put into law.

That process provided that the Board of Regents would go through the selection process and choose who they deemed to be the best person for the job…and the governor would then appoint that person to the post.

The law is the law.

The Chairman of the Board of Regents had an obligation to tell Governor Malloy that the Board was legally obligated to follow the law.

The Board of Regents itself was obligated to tell the Governor that the Board was legally obligated to follow the law.

And Governor Malloy and his Chief of Staff should never have requested that the Board of Regents do anything but follow the law.

As citizens of the state of Connecticut we are left wondering…

What will it take for the Governor of this state to admit that even he is not above the laws of Connecticut?

Meanwhile, Connecticut’s Attorney General should be on the phone right now ordering the Board of Regents to re-convene and conduct themselves in a manner that fulfills their duties under the laws of Connecticut, regardless of what the Governor has asked them to do.

You can find the CT Mirror story here:  http://www.ctmirror.com/story/19641/governor-will-get-pick-next-college-president

Pesticides: A school child’s best friend

In 2010, New York State passed the Child Safe Playing Field Act, legislation that banned the application of pesticides on the play areas of all schools, pre-K through 12th grade.

The New York bill started out as a ban on all outdoor school grounds, but it was narrowed to cover only school playgrounds and playing fields.  It also allows “emergency application of pesticides for infestations.”

Here in Connecticut, pesticides have been banned on school play areas, but only for pre-k through 8th grade.

A bill was introduced this year, House bill 6385, to expand the ban on pesticides to high schools.  The bill passed the Education Committee but it now appears that legislation will be changed into a “task force study bill.”

When in doubt, call for a study. Continue reading “Pesticides: A school child’s best friend”

Heck, with an average age of 75, retired teachers may not even remember it was Malloy’s proposal

Last month, in a post entitled, Define fiscally and morally irresponsible? Malloy’s plan for older, retired teachers. Wait, What? readers had a chance to learn about Governor Malloy’s budget proposal to eliminate the state’s contribution to the retired teacher’s health insurance fund. 

The fund pays a portion of the health insurance premiums of retired teachers.  The bulk of the cost still rests on the individual teachers.

The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee will be holding a public hearing on Malloy’s proposal tomorrow.

Malloy’s plan would force the Connecticut Teacher Retirement Board to spend the existing fund down to almost zero over the next two years.

According to an article in yesterday’s CTMirror, while Malloy’s plan would “save the state” $70.7 million in the upcoming FY14-FY15 biannual budget, but it would “put the plan’s funding at a ‘dangerous level in two years.”

Why take such a fiscally irresponsible action you ask?

Because eliminating the contribution would make the state budget look more balanced during the next gubernatorial election cycle, although the “rob Peter to pay Paul” approach would require a massive boost in the state contribution to the teacher’s retirement fund in FY 16, the year after the next election. Continue reading “Heck, with an average age of 75, retired teachers may not even remember it was Malloy’s proposal”

One Adam-12, One Adam-12, we have a COI in progress

COI as in Conflict of Interest…

(Written by Jonathan Pelto and Wendy Lecker)

Yesterday, the Connecticut State Department of Education held an eight-hour training session for elected officials, administrators and parents associated with the “turnaround” schools that make up the Commissioner’s Network.

Among various education reformers, the “training event” featured none other than the Jumoke Academy’s CEO Michael Sharpe and COO Andrea Comer.  They explained the theory and practice behind the corporate education reform’s successful privatization movement.  Not only does Jumoke Academy collect millions of taxpayer dollars as a result of their Hartford-based charter school, but they are now collecting a state-funded management fee of $345,000 a year to run “The Jumoke Academy at Milner,” the former Hartford elementary school that was given to Jumoke as part of the Commissioner’s Network.

Flush with public funds, this private non-profit corporation has even started a new charter school management company called FUSE, Inc.

Tomorrow, the Connecticut House of Representatives may take up House Joint Resolution No. 75. , A resolution confirming Governor Malloy’s nomination of ANDREA COMER (Jumoke’s COO) to serve as a member of the State board of Education.

Is it a conflict of interest for the COO of a charter school company to sit on the State Board of Education where she will vote on a variety of measures that will directly help Jumoke and other charter schools in the state?  Not in Malloy’s mind.

Under Connecticut law, it would be conflict if she was President or Senior Vice President or Treasurer of Jumoke, but because the law doesn’t specifically use the term Chief Operating Officer, the Office of State Ethics says there is no legal conflict.

But of course there is a conflict of interest.

As Wait, What? readers learned in a recent post entitled Malloy nominates charter school corporate officer to Connecticut State Board of Education, Andrea Comer worked for Charter School Management company, Achievement First, Inc., a company co-founded by Connecticut Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, from  2009 to 2011 and started with Fuse/Jumoke Academy  in 2012.

Just a few weeks ago, Comer came before the legislature’s Appropriations Committee saying that she was representing “Jumoke Academy and its charter management organization FUSE, as its Chief Operating Officer…”

As a member of the State Board of Education, Comer will be voting on a wide variety of issues directly and indirectly affecting the profitability of the company she works for and Connecticut’s other charter schools.

Her boss, Michael Sharpe is not only the CEO of Jumoke Academy but has served as the President of the Connecticut Charter School Network, one of the organizations that is registered to lobby for charter schools.

Comer claims she has no conflict of interest despite the fact that she will be voting to review and reauthorize Jumoke’s Charter, review and vote on issues relating to the Jumoke Academy at Milner, review and vote on any requests by Jumoke Academy to expand, and vote on all regulations and funding decisions for Connecticut’s charter schools.

And those conflicts will occur on a continuous basis.

Just the other day, Jumoke’s Michael Sharpe was testifying before the General Assembly.  In a response to a question about how things were going with Jumoke’s takeover of the Milner School, he let slip a most interesting comment.  Sharpe said, “We’re actually extending it a little bit further in that Jumoke Academy has committed to working with the City of Hartford and possibly taking over schools like Milner School in a fee structure that allows us to help the City and the City also help our bottom line.”

Be sure to check back, because in the coming days we’ll be learning more about this secret deal between Sharpe, Jumoke and some officials within the City of Hartford.

These deals may very well have to go before the State Board of Education for approval where education reformers like Governor Malloy and Commissioner Pryor will count on the support of the newest member of the State Board of Education, who also just happens to be Fuse/Jumoke’s Chief Operating Officer.

Every day it becomes more and more apparent that Governor Malloy’s definition of following the law doesn’t actually include following the “spirit” of that law.

It will be interesting to see if any legislators are willing to stand up and speak out against Malloy’s nomination of Andrea Comer for a seat on the State Board of Education.

Define fiscally and morally irresponsible? Malloy’s plan for older, retired teachers.

There are a lot of crazy, irresponsible and down-right mean things in Governor Malloy’s budget proposal, but his plan to totally eliminate Connecticut’s contribution to the retired teachers’ health insurance fund may very well take the cake.

For nearly sixty years, the State of Connecticut has been helping retired teachers acquire health insurance. 

Prior to 1986, active teachers did not pay into the Federal Medicare system, so when they retired, they didn’t qualify for Medicare, the primary health insurance system for older Americans. 

Furthermore, since teacher salaries were historically so low prior to the educational enhancement act of 1986, older teachers were retiring with very small pensions.  With no Medicare and limited incomes, few could afford the most basic level of health insurance coverage, without some type of subsidy.

For nearly 4 decades, the State of Connecticut utilized a variety of different mechanisms to help these older, retired teachers get some health insurance.  In 1991 it settled on the creation of the Retired Teachers Health Insurance Fund. 

To fund the program, active teachers contribute 1.2 percent of their income into the health fund.  This year that amounts to about $45 million.

The premiums that retired teachers pay for their insurance brings in about $37 million.

And state law required that the State of Connecticut contribute 33 percent of the cost of a Medicare supplement plan into the Insurance Fund.

Together these funds were used to help retired teachers get health insurance through the Teacher’s Retirement Board or through their last employing board of education.  The subsidy isn’t much, only $110 per month, and despite the massive increase in health insurance premium costs, the subsidy hasn’t been increased since 2000.  The Teachers Retirement Board has determined that the $110 subsidy “now covers “on average” only 14% of the monthly premium for the retiree, further eroding the value of the retiree’s pension.

But as bad as things have become, even the $110 helped a little as these retired teachers were forced to shell out of their own pockets an additional $500 to $900 a month to buy insurance through their former boards of education.

Meanwhile, some towns are engaging in a whole separate effort to change the rules and unfairly force teachers off their municipal plans, but I’ll cover that growing problem under a separate post.

In any case, for good or for bad, the present system has been functioning fairly well. 

And then to balance the state budget in Fiscal year 2010 and 2011, Governor Rell and the Democrats decided to insert language that allowed the state to forgo any contribution for two years.  The lack of funding created a situation that began to derail the financial stability of the Retired Teachers Health Insurance Fund. 

When Governor Malloy was sworn in, rather than recommit the state to the appropriate level of funding, he proposed shifting the burden onto the backs of the retired teachers.  The Legislature rightfully rejected the move, but “compromised” by agreeing to only allocate 25% of the value of a Medicare supplement plan rather than the 33% required by the law.

While the state did deposit $35 million in Fiscal Year 2012 and $18 million in Fiscal Year 2013, by refusing to deposit the appropriate amount the Fund was, yet again, undermined.

And then came this year…

Malloy went for broke and proposed simply making no payments what-so-ever into the fund.

Irresponsible
Outrageous
Inappropriate
Incredible
Breathtaking

This Governor, who ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility, proposing that the state simply forgo putting $70 million into the Retired Teachers Health Insurance Fund.

Here are the facts;

In 2012 the Teacher Retirement Board health plan was serving 18,804 retired teachers

In 2012, the Teacher Retirement Board was also paying the town subsidy on behalf of 16,725 retired teachers.

The average age of the retired teacher on the Teacher Retirement Board’s plan is 75 years old.

These teachers received a $0 cost of living adjustment in their pensions in 2010 and 2011.

The Governor’s plan is simply outrageous.

Oh, and by the way, the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee is holding a public hearing today on Malloy’s Teachers Retirement Health Care proposal.

Appropriations Committee Public Hearing

Thursday, February 21
Elementary & Secondary Education (Room 2D)
2:00- 2:30 PM Teachers’ Retirement Board
2:30- 3:00 State Library
3:00- 4:30 Department of Education
Public Budget Hearings (Room 2C) 6:00 PM

Connecticut’s House Republicans step forward to protect open, fair and accountable government

If you found that hard to read, imagine how hard it was to write…

But it is true.

Last week, the leader of the House Republicans blasted Governor Malloy’s plan to undermine Connecticut’s watchdog agencies.

Representative Cafero observed that Governor Malloy’s budget proposal is, “…an attempt to undermine the public’s right to know what is going on within government.” 

Cafero added, “Investigations into campaign finance fraud, ethics complaints and Freedom of Information challenges will fall by the wayside if this proposal goes forward.’’  

While Democratic leaders remained silent or tip-toed around the issue, the House Republicans stepped forward to speak the truth.

The independence of Connecticut’s watchdog and good government entities is under assault.

What are these good government entities?

In 1974, following the Watergate scandal, the Connecticut General Assembly created the State Elections Commission (Public Act 74-213) to “ensure the integrity of the state’s electoral process.”

In 1975, Connecticut passed one of the most far-reaching Freedom of Information Acts in the nation and created the Freedom of Information Commission (Public Act 75-342) to “ensure citizen access to the records and meetings of public agencies in the State of Connecticut.”

And in 1977, the General Assembly formed the Connecticut State Ethics Commission (Public Act 77-600) to “promote the highest ethical standards and accountability in state government by providing education and legal advice, ensuring disclosure, and impartially enforcing the Codes of Ethics.”

In each case, the commissions and offices were set up to be bi-partisan or non-partisan entities, independent of any inappropriate political influence from the administrative or legislative branches of government.  The laws were designed to protect each entity’s fundamental mission to oversee Connecticut’s campaign finance laws, Connecticut’s freedom of information laws and Connecticut’s ethics laws.

Over the years, although Connecticut’s laws were already some of the strongest in the country, state government expanded and strengthened its good government statutes even more, further ensuring open and fair elections and government. 

In 2005, Connecticut adopted a Citizens’ Election Program, considered the “most sweeping public campaign finance program in the country. “

Then, in 2011, Governor Malloy proposed merging the government watchdog agencies into a single entity called the Office of Governmental Accountability.

While the Connecticut General Assembly revised Malloy’s original proposal to allow the various watchdog entities to retain some independence, the legislation, (Public Act 11-48) created the position of Executive Administrator, a position appointed by the governor.  The job of the Executive Administrator was to “provide consolidated personnel, payroll, affirmative action, and administrative and business office function.”

In this way, the Office of the Governor was given far greater reach into the day-to-day operations of the independent, government watchdog agencies.

However, as the Office of Governmental Accountability’s website notes, even today, each entity within the Office of Governmental Accountability “retains its independent decision-making authority, including for budgetary and employment decisions.”

But just a couple of weeks  ago, as part of his proposed state budget, Governor Malloy and his OPM Secretary, Ben Barnes, proposed doing way with that independent budget and employment decision-making authority.

As Representative Cafero explained, “All these watchdogs we rely on to ensure the rights of individuals and root out government fraud and mismanagement would fall under authority of an appointee of the governor. We will be losing any autonomy in these units.’’

Considering Connecticut’s long standing commitment to good government and independent watchdog agencies, the Governor’s decision to make this unprecedented power grab is beyond belief.

But that is exactly what Governor Malloy has done…

And to date, only the Republican legislators have stood up to say they will fight to put an end to Malloy’s proposal.

The public’s right to know and Freedom of Information is so passé…

As Wait, What? readers learned, yet again, this week, policies and procedures put in place by Stefan Pryor, Governor Malloy’s Commission of Education, continues to prevent parents and public education advocates from accessing important public information about the Malloy administration’s education reform and privatization efforts.  In this case the question posed to Pryor’s agency was a simple one, a question that any parent might ask, but the answer was never forthcoming.

As a participant and student of Connecticut State Government for going on four decades, I can say with certainty that no gubernatorial administration during that period has done more to undermine the sanctity of Connecticut’s once legendary Freedom of Information Act.

Cutting the Freedom of Information Commission’s budget, merging it into another agency and revealing a general disregard for its mission has done significant damage.  And the buck stops in the Governor’s Office.  For example, a Freedom of Information request I submitted nearly a year ago continues to go unanswered.

But fellow blogger and Hartford Courant commentary writer, Kevin Rennie published a piece yesterday highlighting the fact that it is not just the Administrative Branch of government that is undermining the letter and spirit of Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act.

Connecticut’s Legislative Branch is doing an equally impressive job limiting the public’s access to information that is – by any definition – a matter of public record.

In a piece entitled “Legislature Resisting Federal Investigators,” Rennie writes,

“Clues to how serious the federal investigation of corruption at the General Assembly is come from the reaction of state officials to routine requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Facts surrounding a list — that an official’s office declined to acknowledge existed in December — were recognized last week with multiple caveats. A request for documents late last year was missing from a recent disclosure of documents but turned up on Wednesday when specifically requested.

This is often the pattern. Deny, obfuscate, see differences where there are none and treat the broad as narrow. All this occurs while they hope it will all go away. If the pattern continues in the legislature, the thick black mark of the frantic redaction of information on official documents released under duress will become that branch’s symbol.”

Before you read Kevin Rennie’s entire column, you can find a link below, read what was written just three years ago as the state celebrated the 35th anniversary of Connecticut’s open government law.

“On October 1, 1975, Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act was born.  The most compelling expression of the purpose behind passage of the FOI Act can be found in its preamble, which was read into the record of both houses of the General Assembly when the law was passed in 1975:

“The legislature finds and declares that secrecy in government is inherently inconsistent with a true democracy, that the people have a right to be fully informed of the action taken by public agencies in order that they may retain control over the instruments they have created; that the people do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them; that the people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know….”

These were the concepts that inspired then-congressman Ella Grasso to make the creation of the FOI Act one of the primary planks of her campaign platform when she ran for Governor in 1974.  Grasso had witnessed first-hand the impact of clandestine government run amok while serving in Congress during the height of the Watergate scandal.

Once elected, Governor Grasso along with Connecticut’s newspapers spearheaded the drive to ensure creation of the FOI Act.  The legislature passed the law not only in response to the public’s pervasive mistrust of government in the aftermath of Watergate, but also with the realization that trust and confidence in government depend on a balanced disclosure of information.”  (Written in celebration of the 35th anniversary of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act by Colleen M. Murphy, Executive Director and General Counsel, Freedom of Information Commission and Eric V. Turner, Managing Director and Associate General Counsel, Freedom of Information Commission.)

Here is a link to Kevin’s Rennie’s column:  http://www.courant.com/news/opinion/hc-op-rennie-legislature-resists-federal-investiga-20130201,0,5312599.column.