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Democrats' Response To Rell: Budget With $373 Million Spending Increase

By CHRISTOPHER KEATING

March 26, 2010

HARTFORD - Democratic legislators, in their first official response to Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell's budget, voted narrowly Thursday to increase spending by $373 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The largest single increase in the proposal, approved 29-25 by the Democrat-controlled appropriations committee, would be an extra $331 million for human services. It also would add $3.3 million to the judicial and corrections departments and $1.6 million to restore six legislative commissions that Rell wants to eliminate.

The close vote was unusual because Democrats hold veto-proof margins in both chambers of the legislature. But some conservative Democrats oppose their party's proposal, saying the spending level is too high.

"I would never support this budget," said Sen. Andrew McDonald, a Stamford Democrat who has become a key swing voter on fiscal matters. "It spends too much. If I'm one of the players, I'm walking away from this ball field."

Overall, the bill would increase annual state spending to $19.28 billion, which is 4 percent more than in the current fiscal year and would push the budget above $19 billion for the first time in state history.

Prison Jobs Cut

In a surprising move, Democrats proposed eliminating 390 positions from state prisons and reducing the number of inmates in an effort to save $22 million. The prisons have more than 6,000 permanent, full-time jobs, and layoffs could be possible because the prison workers' unions did not agree to the concessions other state employees approved last year.

The cut stunned prison administrators, who had not been consulted. Some lawmakers flatly rejected the idea, saying it was a major policy shift that would divert thousands of nonviolent criminals into alternative programs instead of prisons. They also questioned whether some criminals might have to be released from prisons because there would be fewer guards.

McDonald, who co-chairs the powerful judiciary committee, said the prison plan is "a non-starter" that "seems to be pulled out of the air."

The Democratic plan also includes $20 million in new taxes on the insurance industry and a new 5.5 percent gross receipts tax on hospitals, which would raise $310 million and set up a system of "winners and losers" among hospitals across the state. City hospitals would do well under the proposal because they have a high number of non-paying customers and thus would receive more money from "uncompensated" care.

"One of the biggest losers, in all honesty, is Greenwich Hospital," said Sen. Toni Harp, a New Haven Democrat, noting that the downstate hospital would lose $3.8 million.

Cuts For This Year

In a related matter, the state Senate could vote as early as tonight on a Democratic plan to cut state spending in the current fiscal year by eliminating all deputy commissioners for the next 15 months. It also would eliminate "longevity" bonus payments for non-union employees until the end of the next fiscal year, including a payment scheduled for April 1. In addition, the plan would mandate an unpaid furlough day for non-union employees in the current fiscal year and next year.

Rell and Republican legislators have both labeled these cuts "meaningless," saying they assumed the state House would not enact them. But a spokesman for House Speaker Chris Donovan, a Meriden Democrat, said the House hopes to vote on a budget plan next week and is working to act in conjunction with the Senate.

'Dead On Arrival'

Republicans ripped the proposal for next year, saying the Democratic spending levels are irresponsible when the state is facing projected deficits of more than $350 million in the current fiscal year and an estimated $700 million in the next fiscal year.

"They actually increase spending. It's mind-boggling," said Senate GOP leader John McKinney of Fairfield. "This budget is dead on arrival."

House Republican leader Larry Cafero of Norwalk said the state's fiscal problems have been accumulating rapidly as the legislature has decided to borrow money to cover up holes instead of making fundamental spending cuts.

"We are heading down this road on a train, heading for a brick wall," Cafero said. "Now, we're on a suicide mission. ... Now, this is dangerous."

A group of 15 moderate Democrats including Sen. Robert Duff of Norwalk, Sen. Joan Hartley of Waterbury, Sen. Gayle Slossberg of Milford and Rep. Linda Schofield of Simsbury, all members of the appropriations committee had sent a letter to their leaders asking for more cuts in spending. But the appropriations budget "will underscore they have zero juice," Cafero said of the moderates.

Duff, Hartley, Slossberg, and Schofield voted against the proposal Thursday.

McKinney said Democrats had shown "their hypocrisy" over the funding of the judicial branch, which has been locked in a clash with the Rell administration over funding.

Based on money allocated, the judicial branch has said it would close six law libraries and three courthouses. None of those has happened yet, and lawmakers say they are hoping to forestall the closures.

Rell nominated 10 Superior Court judges this week, but some Democrats said they want to block the nominations because the judges are not needed during a fiscal crisis. Republicans, though, said the judicial branch has 21 vacancies for judges, based on retirements.

Cafero: What Cut?

Cafero charged that Democrats had engaged in a shell game by moving school-based health clinics and various programs out of the general fund and shifting the duties to the state's insurance fund. He said that essentially is a $20 million tax increase because the fund is operated through an assessment on the insurance industry.

"If that's a cut, then I've got a full head of hair," said the increasingly balding Cafero.

Harp, who co-chairs the appropriations committee, defended the budget as a fair and compassionate document that counts on collecting $91 million in additional revenue from matching federal grants.

"This budget doesn't lack common sense," Harp said. "Since we're not going to be taxing the people of the state, we've got to get revenue somewhere."

Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican who represents a district with thousands of prison inmates, said he was surprised by the reduction of 390 positions in the prisons. He talked to some of the state's top administrators in prisons and the courts and learned that no one had heard of the idea.

"The appropriations committee can't just mandate that we release nonviolent offenders," Kissel said. "There is so much groundwork that would need to be laid first, and no assurance that it would produce the desired results. In fact, releasing prisoners before they've served their full sentence and reducing staffing levels endangers the health and safety of all people of Connecticut."

Rep. John Geragosian, D- New Britain, responded to the criticism by saying there could be a joint hearing with the judiciary and appropriations committees to discuss the issue.

"We would not do anything that would affect the safety" of the general public, Geragosian said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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