Rell Opposes Democrats' Budget Item That Would Close 2 Prisons
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING
June 27, 2009
The state has fewer prison inmates than it did on the day of the tragic Cheshire killings in July 2007.
The prison population had soared by 1,200 after Gov. M. Jodi Rell froze the parole system following the triple homicide. Now, that number has fallen back completely.
As a result, in their budget proposal, Democratic legislators called for closing two prisons in an attempt to save as much as $200 million annually. But Republicans and Rell sharply questioned the idea at a time when many believe that crime is still too high in citiesthroughout the state.
The prison debate will continue because Rell is expected to veto the overall budget, which includes the prison plan, that was passed by the House on Friday, 91-48.
Neither the House nor the Senate was able to pass the Democratic budget by margins able to override Rell's expected veto. As a result, lawmakers and Rell's budget director are expected to go back into bipartisan budget talks that had been suspended until after the Democratic votes this week.
"It was bad yesterday. It's bad today," Rell's spokesman, Christopher Cooper, said of the Democratic budget Friday. "It's unbalanced, unaffordable and unfinished."
While lawmakers have spun different numbers over the past week, the legislature's nonpartisan fiscal office said the Democratic budget included $2 billion in net spending cuts over the next two fiscal years. The same budget would raise $2.5 billion through tax increases.
The discussion of the prisons was one of many topics that arose during nearly five hours of debate Friday in the Hall of the House at the state Capitol.
Rep. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, questioned the Democratic plan and then offered a Republican alternative budget with no prison closings and no tax increases. That plan was rejected, 104 to 35, largely on party lines.
When Democrats said Rell, too, wanted to close a prison, Cooper said the difference was that Rell had called simply for studying the feasibility of closing one prison if the inmate population dropped. That was different, he said, from a proposal that would force the state to close two prisons if the Democratic plan became law.
To counter the Democratic prison proposal, Rell's office released a letter by Rep. Michael P. Lawlor dated Oct. 17, 2007, after he had toured a prison in Enfield upon the request of prison guards who worked there. The letter was written about three months after the Cheshire killings, when the inmate population had increased by 791 since the day of the triple homicide on July 23, 2007. The population increased after that point.
Two longtime criminals who were out on parole could get the death penalty in the slayings of three members of the Petit family in a crime that shocked the state and caused the legislature to make changes in the law in a special session.
"We need more prison cells," Lawlor, D- East Haven, wrote to Rell in 2007. "We need more corrections officers. ... We need more halfway house beds for nonviolent offenders with mental illness and substance abuse issues, and we need secure inpatient beds for sex offenders."
"It was accurate at the time it was written," Lawlor responded in an interview Friday. "The prison population was going up very rapidly. It got to almost 20,000. ... As it turned out, the population did come down — way down. It's lower now than it was on the day of the Cheshire murders. It went up about 1,200 and came down about 1,200."
At about $45,000 to $50,000 per year, a reduction of 1,000 prisoners could save $50 million and 2,000 fewer inmates could save $100 million per year in prison costs, Lawlor said.
"The budget doesn't require them to pick two prisons and close them," Lawlor said. "It could be a wing in five different prisons. ... The Department of Corrections has a plan to do this. They won't tell us which ones. By the way, they've already closed down some wings of some prisons because the population has come down."
Cooper did not buy Lawlor's explanation.
"How is that going to save any money?" Cooper asked. "Five different wings? What's that going to change? You still have to heat the whole place. It's like many of their cuts: 'Governor, you figure it out.'"
During the lengthy debate Friday, lawmakers took a major detour in the middle of the day to battle over campaign finance reform. Rep. Corky Mazurek, D-Wolcott, offered an amendment to strip $61 million in public financing from the budget. Many lawmakers believed that issue had been settled years ago, and the measure was defeated after about 1 hour and 20 minutes of debate.
The budget bill also calls for these tax changes:
•Increasing the state's cigarette tax by 75 cents per pack on July 1.
•Imposing a 30 percent surcharge on the estate tax that is paid by family members if a person dies with more than $2 million to their name.
•Increasing the state income tax on couples earning more than $500,000 annually and individuals earning more than $265,000.
But all those tax increases would be moot under Rell's expected veto.
As the final speaker before the vote, House Majority Leader Denise Merrill of Mansfield offered the Democratic summary by saying that the party restored funding for prisoner re-entry programs, nursing homes, college scholarships, and the Life Star medical helicopter.
"We reversed the governor's decision to close courthouses" in Norwalk, Derby, Putnam, and other communities, Merrill said. "We couldn't figure out what would happen if we closed these courthouses. ... The judicial branch told us it would be very, very difficult to imagine" how cases would be handled with fewer courts.
" Connecticut will emerge from this economic crisis," Merrill said. "That's what we have to remember today. ... We can't cut everything."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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