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State Capitol: 300 People Speak Against Rell's Proposed Budget Cuts

CHRISTOPHER KEATING

December 10, 2009

From nursing home operators to the mentally ill, more than 300 people spoke at the state Capitol complex on a snowy Wednesday to protest Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell's proposed budget cuts to a wide variety of services.

The crowd was so large that the budget-writing appropriations committee took the rare step of dividing the hearing into two separate rooms in order to hear testimony simultaneously. The diverse crowd ranged from those represented by high-powered lobbyists to unemployed citizens who were afraid that cuts could lead to the loss of their medication.

Nursing home representatives were out in force to protest a cut of 2 percent that would be imposed on a cash-strapped industry that has had no rate increases since 2007.

During the past two years alone, five nursing homes have closed, another five have filed for bankruptcy, and 10 have been placed under state receivership, said Matthew V. Barrett, who represents an association of 110 for-profit nursing homes.

"You've got to look at [the proposed cut] in the context of coming on the heels of everything else," Barrett said in an interview. "A 2 percent additional cut translates into job losses in our industry. We're not an entity that has never been cut before."

Stephen McPherson, president of Masonicare, which operates nonprofit nursing homes in Wallingford and Newtown, said the nursing homes have already been cutting expenses in an attempt to avoid layoffs and provide the best care in an already difficult financial environment.

"You may see less care provided" as a result of further cuts, he said.

Although no final decisions have been announced, many insiders believe the Democratic-controlled legislature will not take any action on the cuts when the General Assembly meets in special session Tuesday. Rell has called the session, but she lacks the authority to force the legislature to approve her cuts. Spokesmen for the Democratic leaders said no final decisions will be made until after caucuses are held in the coming days.

The split hearings lasted more than five hours each on Wednesday meaning that a hearing held in the traditional fashion would have lasted more than 10 hours.

The hearings were held to air the details of Rell's proposed budget cuts, needed because of weak tax collections in a sluggish economy. The two biggest drivers of state revenues the state income tax and the sales tax are generating less money than officials had expected. Part of the reason is the continuing high unemployment rate meaning that many workers are earning less money, paying less taxes, and buying fewer items that generate sales tax.

In addition, state budget analysts are closely watching the Christmas shopping season, as the state relies heavily on the sales tax to generate about $3.2 billion per year. Last year's Christmas season was the worst in decades, and some economists say that this year should be the second-worst.

The budget deficit is currently projected by the state comptroller at nearly $550 million, but that number can change through the year with the ups and downs of Wall Street and changes in the unemployment rate.

In a PowerPoint presentation to legislators, Robert Genuario, Rell's budget director, said the administration was flexible in attempting to solve the budget problem.

"The governor's proposal is a reasonable plan to address the deficit," Genuario said. "We are willing to work with the legislature in order to reach real solutions. But alternative proposals must be real."

Cities And Towns

One of the largest potential cuts in Rell's plan is $84 million in state aid to cities and towns. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities has been broadcasting radio commercials against the cuts, saying they will lead to higher property taxes across Connecticut.

Legislators also expressed concern Wednesday about that proposed aid cut. Rep. Linda Schofield, a moderate Democrat, said towns have had their own problems during the economic downturn and would have trouble absorbing cuts in state aid. Officials had cut the budget in her hometown of Simsbury, and the town still enacted a tax increase this year although it was smaller than in other years.

"It's not as though the towns have been unscathed," Schofield said.

"I wouldn't suggest that," responded Genuario.

Hospital executives are also concerned, saying that a proposed 5 percent Medicaid cut would cost hospitals about $37 million, along with another $11 million for cash-strapped urban hospitals that treat large numbers of uninsured patients.

St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport, said Senior Vice President Ronald J. Bianchi, would lose $2.5 million if the legislature approves Rell's proposals.

"I am highly aware of the serious state deficit we are facing and understand the need to address expenses, but cutting hospitals will reduce capacity and services, which will be needed more than ever with higher unemployment and loss of income for the citizens of our state," Bianchi said in a letter to legislators.

At the Hospital of St. Raphael in New Haven, the cuts would amount to about $2.2 million. New Haven is the hometown of Democratic Sen. Toni Harp, the influential co-chairwoman of the budget-writing appropriations committee.

Community action agencies are also concerned about a proposed cut of 25 percent in their state funding. The agencies operate various programs that directly help those who are struggling, including homeless shelter services, energy assistance, and rental assistance. The problem, officials say, is that citizens are seeking those services more than ever as the state struggles through its worst recession in decades.

In addition to the hospitals and nursing homes and other agencies, individuals came forward to ask legislators to maintain the social safety net.

Barbara Albert, 46, asked lawmakers to block the cuts to housing assistance because she is afraid she could lose her Hartford apartment if the rent goes up. She is eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare because of her multiple health problems, and she takes 12 different medications, she said. She receives food stamps and Social Security disability benefits to cover the bills and remain in the apartment.

"No address equals no benefits, no meds, no roof over my head," said Albert, who added that she was previously homeless and "eating out of trash cans and dumpsters."

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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