Lawmakers struggle to replenish Malloy’s human service cuts

By SUSAN HAIGH
Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Proposed funding cuts to social service programs are one of the most vexing challenges for Connecticut lawmakers as they struggle to find the money to replenish what some call devastating reductions.

Both Democrats and Republicans have voiced strong objections to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposal, which cuts funding to initiatives ranging from home care services for the elderly to Medicaid eligibility for needy pregnant women. Hospitals and not-for-profit agencies have warned they’ll be forced to scale back staff and services if the Democrat’s proposals become law.

“This is the worst budget I’ve seen in my 10 years up here,” said Rep. Catherine Abercrombie, D-Meriden, co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Human Services Committee. Abercrombie, who also sits on the Appropriations Committee, estimates Malloy’s two-year, $40 billion budget cuts a total of $400 million to the state Departments of Developmental Services, Mental Health and Addiction Services, Social Services and Public Health.

“People think we have all this fluff in the system that we can get rid of, and we don’t,” she said. “I think that we have a responsibility to make sure that people that are less fortunate than us are taken care of. I think it’s shameful that this budget will be balanced on the backs of them.”

The human services subcommittee plans to privately present its revised spending recommendations next week to the committee’s co-chairmen. Abercrombie said the subcommittee will recommend spreading the pain by imposing a 5 percent across-the-board cut to human services. But she acknowledges that still won’t generate enough in savings.

“Even though we’re trying to be responsible, doing cuts, strictly doing cuts is not enough. The revenue has to be on the table,” said Abercrombie, who believes some kind of tax increase is needed to balance the new, two-year budget. More than $1 billion deficits are projected in each of the next two fiscal years.

Malloy promised during his re-election campaign not to raise taxes. While his plan does change various tax credit programs and delays planned tax reductions, he contends his pledge pertains to “new taxes.” During a meeting with reporters, Malloy said he has heard the rumblings from state lawmakers about possibly increasing taxes to help replenish his cuts, but he contends the state’s constitutional cap on spending nixes that idea.

“There’s not a lot of room left,” he said. “If there was a lot of room, I wouldn’t have struggled so hard myself in coming up with this budget.”

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, has said lawmakers might consider changing the rules of the cap, but it’s unclear whether that could pass the General Assembly.

Despite the complaints, Malloy contends his budget proposal includes some positive points, such as more overall spending on mental health care. He has urged lawmakers to use it as a framework for their tax and spending proposals, which are due at the end of the month and will be the basis for final negotiations with the governor’s administration.

Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, the ranking Republican senator on the Human Services Committee and a self-described fiscal conservative, said the human services part of the budget is the most difficult place to cut, especially considering the low levels of state funding over the years to organizations that provide psychiatric counseling, group homes and other services.

“We have kept them on starvation wages, in my opinion, for some years,” he said. “Now what we’re doing after starving them, we’re cutting off the food altogether, I feel.”

Markley said he doesn’t believe Malloy ever intended his human services cuts to pass the Legislature.

“What he’s doing is, he’s keeping his campaign promise that he’s not raising taxes,” said Markley, predicting the Democratic controlled Legislature might raise taxes instead. “The kindest word for it is disingenuous. But I think cowardly is another word I might think could be implied.”