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Hundreds protest Rell's budget cuts

Hartford - Hundreds of advocates for the elderly, poor and infirm flocked to the Legislative Office Building Wednesday to protest nearly $340 million in new spending cuts proposed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell to help close the growing shortfall in the fiscal 2010 budget.

On a slushy, frigid day at the Capitol, the outpouring of opposition to the cuts - which also include the elimination of a planned cut in the sales tax and a proposed reduction of $84 million in aid for cities and towns - was extraordinary.

More than 300 witnesses signed up to give testimony before the Appropriations Committee, prompting the committee to take the unusual step of splitting into two groups in order to hear from multiple witnesses at once. Beneficiaries of state-supported social programs thronged the corridors outside the hearing rooms, mingling with lobbyists, legislative staffers and lawmakers themselves, many of whom looked bleary-eyed after hours of testimony.

Attendees wore buttons, T-shirts and hand-made signs seeking the preservation of state funding for an array of services - from eyeglasses to elderly Medicaid recipients to needle-exchange programs to fight the spread of AIDS to early childhood reading and nutrition programs.

While many lawmakers expressed sympathy, legislative action didn't appear imminent, with legislators increasingly inclined to postpone action on spending cuts until after the holidays. But lawmakers and administration officials also share a sentiment that hard choices are looming.

"If we're not going to adopt the governor's suggestions," Rep. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, told one witness warning of the devastating effects of cutting back on social services, "we have to adopt something that does not continue to run the state into deficit."

Rell "tried to spread the pain across the board" in assembling her latest round of cuts, said Robert L. Genuario, the secretary of the Office of Policy & Management and Rell's budget chief, in a morning briefing for the committee.

By late afternoon, chairing the meeting of a task force of municipal officials who were objecting to proposed cuts in aid for their own governments, Genuario was still smiling, but more blunt.

"Obviously the input from this group, with a minority dissent, is not to touch municipal aid," he said.

As mayors and first selectmen continued to voice their objection, he said simply, "We don't have enough money to pay for everything."

Worry and warning
over spending cuts

But the themes of the day were worry and warning, less over deficits than over the effect of cuts being contemplated by Rell and the legislature. Before the hearings began, one of Rell's savings measures had already gotten the state sued.

Children's Rights, a national advocacy group, filed suit in federal court late Tuesday, seeking a temporary injunction to block Rell's cost-saving proposal to block new admissions into the Voluntary Service Program, a diversionary program intended to help troubled kids avoid the foster-care system.

State Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein also wrote to Rell to express "grave concerns" about that and other moves.

Over in the Legislative Office Building, advocates warned of potentially devastating effects from the proposed spending cuts.

A 2 percent drop in Medicaid rates for nursing homes would come on the heels of $300 million in reductions in the most recent budget, said Kathleen A. Pajor, the executive director of the Beechwood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in New London.

The cuts are adding up, she said: "There will be layoffs, and quality of care will be compromised."

Rell's proposal "will close nursing homes, jeopardize care for thousands of frail and elderly residents and eliminate jobs for thousands of caregivers across the state," Pajor said.

Opponents of the cuts say slashing even relatively small sums - $150,000 for improving early childhood literacy instruction, for instance - would be counterproductive and could undercut the state's effort to win federal support for programs.

Paul R. Pescatello, the president and CEO of CURE, a biotech research advocacy group, testified early in the evening against Rell's proposal to cut $10 million in funding for a program that had been one of the governor's own priorities: the state's stem cell research fund. That fund, supported with a 10-year, $100 million commitment from the state, is the key to driving growth in the biotech industry and seeding the ground for new jobs and economic revival, Pescatello said.

"The effect of delaying the next $10 million installment would be disastrous," he said, especially for researchers who have made long-term research plans in anticipation of assistance from the state. "They have relied on the state's written-into-law commitment."

Sherry Linton, a policy analyst at the Connecticut Association of Human Services, urged legislators to do something about the state's aggressive efforts to wring savings out of programs like the Care 4 Kids program, which she said had been "opened, closed, and now reopened in order to limit spending" this fiscal year.

While the Department of Social Services has been able to find $10 million in surplus in the program, Linton said, "It's not necessarily a surplus; it's just a forced lapse in spending."

No one on the committee spoke up to point out a relevant fact: It is through just such "lapses" - $473 million worth, to be precise - that the Democrat-approved budget requires Rell and her agencies to find savings over the next year-and-a-half.

Municipalities won't
settle for less

Meanwhile, in an adjoining room, the task force of municipal officials that Rell appointed to suggest reductions in state mandates and offer guidance on how and where to reduce grants to local governments was wrapping up its work. Rell offered the creation of the task force as a peace offering of sorts, one intended to soften the blow of her proposed $84 million cut to towns.

They didn't quite respond in kind. Virtually every municipal official on the panel voted for a resolution opposing any effort to reduce grants to towns. The only two no votes on the resolution came from Rell's own appointees, Genuario and Administrative Services Commissioner Brenda Sisco. (Vernon Mayor Jason McCoy, a Republican appointed by Rell, abstained.)

The panel also unanimously approved a list of mandates it believed legislators should consider revising, including requirements on everything from binding arbitration to the storage of personnel files.

But it remains unclear what action, if any, Rell's proposed cuts will prompt from the legislature, which she has called back into special session on Dec. 15. Senate Democrats plan to caucus Friday to discuss their plans, and House Democrats will meet Monday. With the bulk of the cuts Rell has proposed being largely within her power - mid-year rescissions she can impose unilaterally and budget "lapses" her agencies can achieve by not releasing funds from individual accounts - many in the Capitol said they didn't expect substantive action from the legislature to enact its own budget fixes before the end of the year.

"We have not made a decision," Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said in a brief phone interview. By cutting some ongoing programs now rather than later, "you absolutely do save more," Williams said, but other large reductions will still be available options when lawmakers return next year to prepare for the regular session in February.

t.mann@theday.com

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