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State Legislators Finally End Longest Budget Battle

CHRISTOPHER KEATING

October 03, 2009

Ending the longest budget battle in state history, the General Assembly approved the final nuts-and-bolts details of the spending plan Friday, opting to preserve educational programs and deciding to postpone a controversial in-school suspension program by one year.

The Democratic-controlled legislature approved multiple items that have been opposed by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, including $1.3 million for a study on the children of incarcerated parents. It remained unclear Friday night whether Rell would veto the bill, and her spokeswoman said that Rell would not announce any decisions until next week.

Legislators were relieved to finish their work, noting that it was unprecedented to be voting on the so-called budget implementation bills in October more than three months after the fiscal year started.

One of the controversial provisions of the legislation would prevent Rell from making cuts in an account of the judicial branch that amounts to $7.8 million. Rell's budget director, Robert Genuario, said in a letter to top legislators that the state cannot afford a special exception for the court system during the worst economic downturn in decades.

"It is particularly unconscionable," Genuario wrote, "to provide a blanket exception to one branch of government at the same time that other state agencies are being burdened with budgetary reductions that impact their ability to perform core services for our veterans, disabled students, and schoolchildren."

House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk also railed against a plan to spend $1.3 million over two years for the study regarding the effects on children whose parents are in prison. The study would be completed by a think tank at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.

While saying that it is "a worthy subject to study," Cafero noted that the issue has been studied by many other entities through the years around the nation.

Cafero said he saw 316,000 hits on a Google search of the subject in less than one second. Rather than studying the issue again, the state could save more than $1 million by simply buying every study that has ever been written on the matter, he said.

"It would cost us $8,500 shipping included," Cafero said of buying the previously published material. "Every study, every book."

"When we say we can't cut any more, isn't it true, folks, that this is one area where we don't need to expend $1.3 million?" Cafero asked on the House floor. "That is the problem with government. That's why people aren't too high on us these days."

When no Democrats responded to Cafero's speech, House Speaker Christopher Donovan called for a vote. Along mostly party lines, the bill passed 96-35, with 20 legislators absent.

In another controversial matter, Rell had also opposed an attempt to revise a funding formula that would have increased money to only one town, Mansfield, and decreased funding to all 168 other municipalities in the state. House Majority Leader Denise Merrill, a Democrat who represents Mansfield, said she withdrew the proposal from the bill after saying it remained unclear exactly how the complicated state law would affect her hometown.

"We're going to look into it some more," Merrill said. "I am still convinced that my position is the right one."

Merrill and other Democrats said that Mansfield has been improperly penalized under an obscure provision of the law that failed to count the University of Connecticut students in the town's overall population. With a lower reported population, the town has been receiving less state aid than expected in a particular grant. Merrill said she wanted to fix the formula as a matter of fundamental fairness, but Republicans said it was an unfair maneuver by a powerful legislator to help only one town at the expense of all others.

Free Food

In a point of agreement with Rell, legislators voted Friday to change a law that would allow parishioners at churches to make meals at home in potluck dinners and bring them to homeless shelters. Currently, the law states that meals that are given away must be cooked in a licensed kitchen meaning that the long-standing practice by some charitable groups is technically illegal.

Legislators were dumbfounded to learn that section 19a-36 of state law prohibits a practice that has been going on for decades.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal asked for the change, which would allow the free distribution of food. Currently, charitable organizations can sell food at bake sales that is cooked in unlicensed kitchens. But the distribution of free food is in a different category.

The issue arose in Middletown when the local health department cited the local soup kitchen of St. Vincent De Paul for distributing food from unlicensed kitchens. In a related matter, a group called Middletown Food, Not Bombs that consists mainly of Wesleyan students has been distributing free food for about a decade. But Middletown health officials received an anonymous call that questioned whether the group had a food license. The local officials wanted the group to maintain records of the people cooking the food in order to act quickly in case of an outbreak of food-related illness.

Education Bill

Upstairs on the third floor in the state Senate, the longest debate of the day centered on the annual education implementation bill, which included details on public school construction, transportation, priority schools, education grants, in-school suspension, and the money that would be allocated to each of the Hartford magnet schools.

Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican, asked about substitute teachers in the public schools who do not have a bachelor's degree. Those substitutes can teach for 10 days if they lack a college degree, said Sen. Thomas Gaffey, a Meriden Democrat who is co-chairman of the education committee.

As part of a bill that was approved 32-1, senators postponed the installation of an in-school suspension program until July 1, 2010. Republicans argued that the measure is an unfunded mandate that will be costly because adults must be paid to watch the students during the suspension, while Democrats said it was a worthwhile effort that would prevent students from getting into trouble if they were sent home on suspension.

Sen. Edith Prague, a Columbia Democrat and former schoolteacher, said, "In-school suspension is a much better way to deal with kids who are causing trouble."

Sending them home "to run the streets" is a bad idea, Prague said. Paying for tutors for an out-of-school suspension beyond 10 days would be even more expensive, she said.

Lawmakers also voted to re-establish the Long Island Sound license plate accounts only one day after Blumenthal told Rell and legislators that money could not be sent to the state's general fund.

"Diverting these moneys into the general fund made no sense, gutting a successful program while providing a pathetic pittance for deficit reduction," Blumenthal said. "I will continue to fight for a cleaner and healthier Long Island Sound."

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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