A proposal by Gov. Chris Christie to place the independent State Commission of Investigation under the control of the State Comptroller was met with opposition Wednesday by a key Senate Democratic leader and the SCI chairman.
In an effort to save $3.5 million, the governor wants to place the SCI, the state Inspector General, and the state Medicaid Inspector General under the State Comptroller.
The Senate Legislative Oversight Committee Wednesday held a hearing the proposal. Democrats who control the panel appear open to the merger except for the idea of including the SCI.Senate Democratic Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the committee chairwoman, said the SCI was formed by the Legislature 41 years ago as an independent agency to watch for wrongdoing in state and local government and the public. She said it has never been accused of political bias.
"It defies common sense to take away the eyes and ears over the executive branch,‘' the senator said. "We can't allow this public watchdog to be abolished.
SCI Chairman W. Cary Edwards, a former state attorney general, also spoke in opposition to the proposal.
"To be perfectly blunt, if the current state budget proposal were enacted as is, the SCI would cease to exist. The agency's $4.5 million appropriation would be slashed by more than 75 percent and all but a handful of positions for special agents, forensic accountants and investigative attorneys would be eliminated,'' Edwards told the committee. "That would happen regardless of any plan to merge what would be left of the SCI into the Office of the State Comptroller. The bottom line in this approach is that New Jersey would no longer have an effective, independent watchdog in the Legislative branch of government to root out and report upon against waste, corruption and organized crime.
That would be wrong, and I'm here to tell you why.''
State Comptroller Matthew Boxer, who would oversee the combined agencies, said if Christie's proposal becomes a reality, he is confident it would function independently and successfully.
"The governor has now proposed consolidating the efforts of four of the five state oversight agencies that have similar (government oversight) missions,'' Boxer said. "Specifically, the plan would move to our office the operations of three of those other agencies. If, following legislative review, that plan ultimately is adopted, my commitment to the public is that our office will carry out any additional responsibilities aggressively and appropriately.''
The state comptroller is appointed by the governor with the approval of the Senate for a six-year term.
Boxer confirmed that as many as 43 of the SCI‘s staff of 53 would be laid off under the consolidation
"That would seriously undermine the SCI and put the independent authority under the executive branch,'' Buono said. "That should raise serious concerns from a good government and public policy standpoint.''
In the past 40 years, there have been at least six attempts to abolish the SCI or reduce its powers. The most serious attempt occurred when Gov. Christie Whitman did not move to reauthorize the agency and it took a bipartisan effort by the Legislature to save it.
Boxer said it is up to the Legislature and governor to decide the consolidation.
"We have five different oversight offices that have similar missions,'' he said. "The notion is that combining the agencies under one roof make for a more efficient oversight function. If we are entrusted to carry on our efforts and hold our part, we will do it aggressively and we are confident we can do this.''
State Inspector General Mary Jane Cooper, who told the committee that she will leave office when her five-year appointment expires on June 30, spoke in opposition to her five-year-old agency being placed under the State Comptroller.
Cooper said the independence of the Inspector General's enabled it to save the state $500 million that were being mishandled by the state Schools Development Authority and another $50 million placed at risk by mismanagement or improper actions by state bureaucrats.
Edwards told the committee the SCI has repeatedly demonstrated its value to the taxpayers and has earned its place as the state's premier independent government watchdog. He said it has conducted, and publicly reported on, more than 120 investigations and has revealed widespread waste, fraud and abuse in many areas critical to the interests of the citizens.
"It has kept you, the Legislature, and the law enforcement community and the public at-large informed about the scourge of organized crime - a vital oversight function performed by no other watchdog agency,'' Edwards said. " Furthermore, the SCI's findings and recommendations have led to the savings of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars and paved the way for extensive statutory and regulatory reforms on a systemic scale.
"That's because we do fact-finding investigations that identify systemic problems and ways to fix them,'' Edwards added. "We don't target individuals. The SCI is not an agency that plays "gotcha." Certainly, on occasion, we use examples but only to a limited extent and only when necessary to bring full transparency, disclosure and explanation to difficult systemic issues. But our primary goal, our fundamental objective, is to develop and recommend sensible, practical remedies so that the problems we identify can be fixed and don't happen again. And in this regard, the record speaks for itself: Over the past five to seven years alone, 80 percent of the SCI recommendations have been adopted by the Legislature and the governor.''