Hugh McQuaid Photo
Sen. Steve Cassano at podium, Tom Gullotta at right (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

A small group of lawmakers and advocates began a difficult push Wednesday — asking the state to help fund a new apprenticeship program during a session when the legislature is focused on making difficult budget cuts.

The group is seeking $150,000 in state aid to match an equal amount of private contributions in order to fund a pilot program designed to place a limited number of young people in careers and help them pay down college loans.

Each of the 15 expected participants would begin working in a government or nonprofit job with a focus on the arts or serving children or elderly people. Following one year’s work, the participant would receive a $10,000 grant for education expenses and their employer would receive an equal grant to subsidize the first year’s salary.

Organizers of the project say it will help aid a generation of young people saddled with college debt and help curb the so-called “brain drain,” in which educated residents migrate out of state to areas with more available jobs. A bill to help fund the program will be introduced as the state government is struggling with current and future deficits.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration announced Tuesday night that the governor would order a second round of emergency budget cuts to deal with a nearly $121 million deficit for current fiscal year. A previous round of cuts impacted social services and higher education funding.

Meanwhile, Malloy and the legislature will be looking for places to make even deeper cuts as they attempt to craft a two-year budget with the state facing a $1.3 billion deficit in 2016 and a $1.5 billion deficit in 2017.

During a Wednesday press conference, Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, a retired community college professor, called for shifting money from currently-funded scholarship programs rather than devoting new money to the program.

“The first question most of you as reporters will say immediately is ‘well, you know the state’s broke. How are we going to pay for this?’” he said. “. . . We’re not asking for additional appropriations. We’re asking to use the money that is already in place in the college system to be used as matching grants.”

Rep. David Alexander, D-Enfield, said the program could be used to help millennials who will soon be returning from military service. Alexander, who serves in the Marine Corps Reserves, said the state expects to see more than 5,000 returning veterans in the next few years as a result of efforts to reduce the size of the military.

“We’re not asking for a lot of money here. I obviously know we have a big deficit with this budget . . . but this is not that much money. I think if you look at the little we’re asking for and where it would go, I think you really would get a significant and impressive return on the investment,” he said.

Alva Greenberg, founder of the program called Serve Here CT, said private donors have already contributed more than $110,000. Tom Gullotta, a chief adviser to the program, acknowledged the state’s fiscal problems, but said the private contributions demonstrate a public interest in the idea.

“The public is apparently extremely interested and extremely intrigued with what is a very different approach to trying to keep young people, our future, in this state,” he said.

The group is hoping to have funding secured to begin accepting applications to the pilot program in the spring. Cassano said Wednesday he had not yet discussed the proposal with legislative leaders.

Rep. Ernie Hewett, D-New London, also attended the press conference Wednesday and supports the proposal.