HARTFORD, Connecticut — Democrats in the Connecticut General Assembly rebuffed many of the Democratic governor's proposed spending cuts on Monday, approving an alternative plan that fully or partially restores reductions to budget items ranging from mental health care grants to state park funding.
While the two-year, $40.5 billion spending bill cleared the Appropriations Committee on a party line, 33-to-24 vote, some of the panel's Republican members said they support many aspects of the spending plan and hope they'll play a role in the upcoming budget negotiations, as lawmakers try to craft a final budget agreement reached with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
The proposal spends $605 million more than Malloy in the general fund — the state's main spending account — over the next two fiscal years. The legislature's Finance Revenue and Bonding Committee have until May 1 to vote out a corresponding revenue package.
"I think today is a more of a starting point than an ending point and I think we certainly can find common ground as legislators in this building," said Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, the ranking GOP senator on the budget-writing committee.
Last Friday, the House and Senate Republicans offered their own budget that replenished many of Malloy's proposed social service and health care cuts, decried by advocates as draconian. But the Republicans voiced concern Monday with the Democrats' proposal to allow more spending by changing the rules of Connecticut's constitutional cap on state spending. Under the plan, unfunded pension liabilities for state employees, teachers and judges would no longer be counted toward the overall figure.
Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, said the spending cap is "a real problem."
"I'm sure that comes as no surprise," she said.
But Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, the committee's co-chairwoman, said she and other Democrats believe the current rules for the cap would allow such long-term debt costs to be excluded. Despite the proposed change, Bye said the Democrats' budget still includes painful reductions needed to cover more than $2 billion in projected deficits.
"It's not like we're trying to blow open this number to spend, spend, spend," she said. "We made many, many difficult cuts."
For example, the legislative Democrats' budget replenishes $18 million of the $25 million in cuts proposed by Malloy in state mental health care grants. While advocates welcomed the $18 million, they said the rest of the money needs to be restored.
"The $18 million will not fully meet the needs of 230 community agencies that serve 55,000 individuals," said a joint statement from six mental health authorities, who warned services and staff will still have to be cut.
The Democrats' plan replenishes funding for health care coverage for poor pregnant women and restores the state's Medicaid reimbursement rate to hospitals. It also restores funding for libraries, state parks, youth service bureaus, regional tourism districts and other initiatives. However, it does not expand seats in charter schools, as Malloy had proposed. Also, Bye said there was not enough money to provide a cost-of-living increase to nonprofit social service agencies — an issue she said could be revisited later this session.
Many of Malloy's proposed cuts targeted in the Democrats' plan were also restored in the Republicans' budget, released Friday. The GOP has called for givebacks from state employees to help cover the cost.
"The costs of fundamental programs should not be shouldered on the backs of those who can least afford it and those who already face many challenges," said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven. "We need to work collaboratively to prioritize people over politics."