With only a handful of days left and an agreement from Gov. M. Jodi Rell to increase income taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents, will the legislature’s Democratic majority be able to strike a budget deal before Sept. 1?
While both sides remain optimistic it was unclear Friday if they will have a budget deal by the end of the weekend.
As of 4 p.m. Friday, Rell’s Budget Secretary Robert Genuario said he has not seen the $520 million in spending cuts the legislature’s Democratic majority promised.
“It has not as of yet been delivered, but it has been promised,” Genuario said. “They will call me when it’s ready.”
“We believe we’re closer than ever to a budget agreement,” Sen. President Donald Williams, said in a statement Friday evening.
The two sides will work through the weekend with the expectation that a budget can be passed at the beginning of next week, he said.
But how many lawmakers will be willing to make what are expected to be deep cuts to social services, health care, and municipal aid?
The $520 million in additional cuts Rell is demanding in exchange for a modest increase in the income tax, elimination of the estate tax, and a reduction in the sales tax will likely force Democrats to make deep cuts to programs and services used by some of the state’s neediest residents.
“We’ve hit everything already,” Majority Leader Denise Merrill said Thursday in a phone interview. “I can’t imagine where you can find more cuts.” She said the only place left to look at in the budget is social services and municipal aid.
She said they may be able to trim some programs, but are looking more at making some structural changes to the budget. She said certain policy changes may take more time to figure out than just trimming line items, but will help save the state money in the end.
Sister Mary Alice Synkewecz, director of the Collaborative Center for Justice, said she would hate to see the state balance the budget on the back of its most vulnerable residents. An advocate of a program which gives health care benefits to low-income legal immigrants, Synkewecz, said she hopes the legislature does what’s right for the “common good.”
The program that provides health coverage for legal immigrants has been considered for a cut by the governor’s office and cut in half by the legislature’s Democratically-controlled Appropriations Committee. In early August Attorney General Richard Blumenthal warned that eliminating the program might result in legal action against the state, like it did in Maryland.
Aside from the 3,000 legal immigrants that may lose their health care there’s 28,000 nursing home residents that may also be dealt a blow by budget negotiators.
Matthew Barrett, executive vice president of the Connecticut Association of Healthcare Facilities, has said the last two budget proposals, one by the Democrats and one by the governor, still includes “sweeping cuts of about $300 million that will devastate Connecticut nursing homes.”
“Beyond the rate cuts, both proposals cut mandated rate adjustments of about $290 million and would discourage renovations and improvements to facilities by eliminating fair rent payments for an additional savings of $6.3 million,” Barrett has said.
But it’s not just the elderly, who have been feeling the pain of a budget that’s two months overdue.
Over the past few months Family Resource Centers and Head Start programs have closed their doors to preschool children and their families.
“Another $520 million would be devastating to those who need those services the most -children, working families, elderly, and disabled,” Maggie Adair, co-chair of the Better Choices for Connecticut campaign, wrote in a letter to lawmakers Friday.
Even the state’s employee union begged Democratic lawmakers to hold off on deeper cuts.
“We’ve maintained all along during these budget negotiations that Connecticut’s crisis cannot be solved through cuts to vital public services,” Sal Luciano, executive director of AFSCME Council 4, has said.
“Our members stepped up this year and agreed to significant givebacks to help balance the budget. It’s too bad the Governor is still sheltering billionaires by cutting their inheritance taxes” Luciano added.
Whether Democrats will come back with more revenue and fewer cuts remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Genuario said he will make himself available this weekend if they do.