Bevin's proposed budget cuts threaten watchdog agencies, elections

02/09/2016 10:52 PM

FRANKFORT — Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed two-year spending plan could have drastic consequences for two agencies charged with keeping an eye on politicians and the dollars they spend.

Officials with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission and the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance told lawmakers on the House Budget Review Subcommittee on General Government, Finance and Public Protection that there is no way the agencies can survive the cuts as handed down and still fulfill their statutory obligations to watch over public officials.

Three of Kentucky’s constitutional officers also testified before the committee on Tuesday. Two of the three statewide elected officials testified that it was unlikely they could fulfill their required duties after enduring a 4.5 percent cut in the remainder of the current fiscal year and 9 percent cuts in the upcoming biennium.

Kathryn Gabhart, the Executive Director of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, the agency charged under statute with watching over elected officials, officers and other employees in the executive branch of state government, said that if the cuts go through the agency would be a farce.

“I can guarantee you that these proposed cuts will devastate the ethics commission,” said Gabhart. “I can’t overstate how important it is to make sure you have a robust and active ethics commission ensuring that state employees follow the principles in the ethics code developed by the General Assembly, and ensuring that they know there’s an ethics commission with the power, authority and resources to enforce that code cannot be overstated.”

Currently the agency has one part-time investigator and one part-time auditor.

There are four full-time employees of the agency which includes Gabhart. Under Bevin’s cuts, the agency would have to drop their investigator and auditor, she said.

“We will be an investigating and auditing agency with no investigator and no auditor,” Gabhart said.

Over the course of several budgets, Gabhart said the agency has requested a full-time auditor and investigator to take on corruption in the commonwealth, but those requests were not fulfilled, and now there’s nothing left to cut in the agency.

The Executive Branch Ethics Commission and the state ethics code was created in 1992 following the Boptrot scandal.

The commission is not the only agency which says their functions will be drastically impaired. The former head of the ethics commission and current Executive Director for the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, John Steffen is also concerned with how his agency will endure the cuts.

Steffen told the committee that the agency charged with administering Kentucky’s campaign finance laws, opening up and giving the public access to campaign financial data and financial disclosure reports is down to just 11 full-time and one part-time employee.

Seven years ago the agency had a staff of 19 people, and Steffen is hoping to be able to fill at least one open position so he has a second auditor.

With the potential under HB 147 for even more money funneling through the agency’s database, Steffen that said that would increase the audit work for the already under staffed agency.

“We’re a watchdog agency, if we don’t have the money to do our jobs everything suffers,” he said.

Constitutional officers struggling with cuts

Bevin’s budget doesn’t just threaten the ability for watchdog groups to fulfill their responsibilities, it could also impact the Treasury and the State Board of Elections.

Treasurer Allison Ball who is in her first weeks in office said her agency is also struggling to figure out how they can make the cuts without losing critical staff.

Bevin’s budget will create a $135,000 shortfall after the 4.5 percent cut in the current fiscal year. After the 9 percent proposed cuts in the upcoming biennium and the agency will face a $217,000 deficit.

Ball, a Republican who ran on fiscal responsibility, said the only place the agency could find that kind of money would be from personnel, but she doesn’t think they can cut personnel and still fulfill the essential functions.

“We could probably manage some of it, but not all of it,” Ball said.

Ball said that she is trying to run the Treasury as bare bones as possible, but she will need to hire for positions that are still open. One area she’ll need to bring back after bring cut is janitorial services, which she said former Treasurer Hollenbach had done away with, but could cost more in the long run as there are OSHA violations.

The treasurer’s office is not the only place that is gritting through the proposed cuts, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, said that her office too would be negatively impacted, but it’s the State Board of Elections that has her really concerned.

Grimes said the cuts threaten two programs in the Secretary of State’s Office, the address confidentiality program and Kentucky Business One Stop. She asked lawmakers to grant her permission to use restricted funds collected by her office though business filings to fund those programs. Grimes said the State Board of Elections, “respectfully cannot” withstand the 9 percent cuts proposed for the 2017 – 2018 budget.

“Without your help we are going to be taking our elections back to the voting box…” Grimes said to committee members.

According to Grimes the 9 percent cuts would amount to a $300,000 shortfall in the Secretary of State’s office and more than $500,000 shortfall for the State Board of Elections.

Lawmakers in the House are expected to introduce their version of the budget at the beginning of March.

About Nick Storm

Nick Storm is the Anchor and Managing Editor of Pure Politics, the only nightly program dedicated to Kentucky politics. Nick covers all of the political heavyweights and his investigative work brings to light issues that might otherwise go unnoticed, like the connection between the high profile Steubenville, Ohio rape and a Kentucky hacker whose push for further investigation could put him in federal prison. Nick is also working on a feature length bio documentary Outlaw Poet: A documentary on Ron Whitehead. Follow Nick on Twitter @NickStorm_cn2. Nick can be reached at 502-792-1107 or nicholas.storm@charter.com.

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