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Rell backs off on cost-saving move

Hartford - Under legal pressure, Gov. M. Jodi Rell on Friday reversed her proposal to save the state money by freezing admission to a program intended to help troubled children avoid being diverted into the foster care system.

Rell's proposal, one of about $340 million in new spending cuts the governor proposed last month to help close the current-year deficit, would have temporarily blocked new admissions to the Voluntary Service Program as of Jan. 1.

But the move drew protests from state officials, including Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein, and a quick court challenge from the national advocacy group Children's Rights.

The group sought an injunction on Rell's move in federal court, arguing that the governor was barred from making the cut under the terms of the Juan F. consent decree, which enjoins the state's troubled foster care system and Department of Children and Families.

A spokesman for DCF, Josh Howroyd, confirmed the reversal of the proposed cut Friday evening.

"The fiscal situation requires a lot of difficult decisions across all agencies," Howroyd said.

Meanwhile, state Senate Democrats emerged from several hours of closed-door meetings Friday with no clear indication whether the legislature will vote next week on proposals to close the state's nearly $450 million current-year deficit.

Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said they have made no decision on whether to try to vote on Tuesday on proposals to cut current-year spending, as Rell has urged. The Senate will await the outcome of the House Democrats' caucus on Monday, they said.

"We'll be taking action when there's agreement," Williams said, adding that a vote on Tuesday was "not outside the realm of possibility."

And while individual Democratic senators who control subcommittees were asked during the caucus to consider what spending cuts they would find acceptable, after the meeting Williams said the primary focus should be on Rell, and ensuring that her administration is able to wring more than $470 million in savings out of state agency budgets before the end of the fiscal year on June 30, as directed in the biennial budget passed this fall.

"I think the important thing is that we achieve the savings that we need to balance the budget," Williams said. "She's over-spending what has been appropriated in the biennial budget."

Rell administration officials, including Secretary Robert L. Genuario of the Office of Policy & Management and the governor herself, have warned that the state will be unlikely to recoup all of the savings the budget requires this year through so-called "lapses," in which agencies withhold some of their appropriated funds in order to return them to the General Fund at year's end.

Williams read to reporters a quote from the governor's remarks earlier this week at a Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting, at which Rell said such savings through lapses were "not going to happen."

"The Governor is doing everything in her power to meet those savings mandated in the Legislature's budget," said a Rell spokesman, Rich Harris. "But if this budget is to be balanced, at some point the Democrats have to step up and make real, achievable cuts - not simply call for unspecified, generic lapses."

t.mann@theday.com

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