Hugh McQuaid Photo
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed Monday to remove the cap on a rental assistance program for elderly or disabled residents and to allow new participants into the program for the first time since last year.

The Connecticut Elderly Renters’ Rebate Program partially reimburses low-income senior citizens and disabled citizens for rental payments. Top reimbursement rates range from $700 for a single person to $900 for a married couple.

The Malloy administration and lawmakers capped the program last year to save money in the state budget. As of last April, no new applicants were accepted into the program. On Wednesday, Malloy called for lifting the cap and increasing the program’s funding by $6.5 million.

“We had to cut it off last year, we’re going to reopen and we’re going to reopen it with $6.5 million more money in the fund,” Malloy told a group of seniors gathered at a Wethersfield community center.

The governor said those added dollars would enable another 12,700 residents to receive rental assistance from a program that already serves roughly 40,000 people. Because Connecticut has one of the oldest populations in the country, Malloy said the phaseout of the program, which his administration called for a year ago, was “now unacceptable.”

“The same way that it’s unacceptable to send our children into public school systems that are failing them, it’s also unacceptable not to give our full support to our senior citizens and disabled individuals,” he said.

Edith Prague, an outspoken former lawmaker who now serves as Malloy’s commissioner of the state Department on Aging, said many seniors contacted her office with concerns about the program’s cap. She said she made the trip to Wethersfield on Monday despite snowy conditions to hear Malloy announce the new funding.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Edith Prague, commissioner of the state Department on Aging (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

“For somebody who doesn’t go out the first time they see a snowflake out there, I came here from Columbia where I live because I wanted to hear the words from the governor’s mouth,” she said. “. . . Reinstating the elderly rental rebate program is so critical to so many people, it’s a wonderful day. It’s like it isn’t even snow, the sun is shining.”

The proposal is the most recent announcement in what is shaping up to be an election year legislative session with a heavy focus on the needs of senior citizens. More than a dozen lawmakers have signed onto a similar bill. A week ago Malloy proposed a set of policies aimed at helping the long-term unemployed, particularly older job seekers.

And on Friday, Democrats in the House and Senate held a press conference to outline their 2014 “agenda aimed at saving senior citizens money.” Lawmakers called for a series of privacy and consumer protection proposals like requiring utility companies to more clearly communicate information on rate increases and fees to ratepayers.

“We feel the need, this year in particular, to focus our attention on those in our population who have given so much and have worked their entire lives contributing back to their community and deserve the protection that we can afford them in their older years,” House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said Friday.

This year’s focus on seniors comes as state lawmakers and the governor will need to run for re-election if they want to stay in their positions. And older citizens are among the most reliable voters.

“Senior citizens vote in a higher percentage than their younger counterparts,” Nora Duncan, state director of the AARP, said.

Duncan’s organization has more than 600,000 members in Connecticut. Although it does not endorse specific candidates, AARP puts together voter guides focused on issues impacting seniors with the positions of candidates running for statewide and federal offices.

Hugh McQuaid File Photo
Nora Duncan (Hugh McQuaid File Photo)

Duncan said her group’s internal polling suggests that around 40 percent of voters who cast ballots in Connecticut elections are AARP members.

She said public officials are often more receptive during election years, something she chalks up to both political influence and the impact of constituent feedback candidates hear on the campaign trail.

“Yes they’re more willing to listen but also they’re hearing what’s happening out on the ground to people every day, because they’re doing more engagement,” she said. “When you make yourself available to people they tell you what they think.”

Duncan said she hoped to hear a continued focus on the issues impacting older residents as the legislative session gets underway. Citing national statistics, she said someone turns age 50 roughly every seven seconds, and Connecticut is among the oldest states.

“We really need to make sure our communities are prepared for this,” she said. “The inevitable is happening.”

Malloy, who has yet to announce whether he will seek reelection, echoed those thoughts Monday when asked if he would speak more to the needs of the state’s senior citizens Wednesday during his State of the State address.

“I hope so. We’re the seventh oldest state in the nation . . . Making sure that those individuals are a capable of caring for themselves, staying in their own homes, having a quality of life, participating in our economy, should be a goal of any administration. It certainly is of mine,” he said.