Advocates for human and social services were lined up outside the closed doors of the House Majority Caucus room at the state capitol Tuesday as Democratic lawmakers got up to speed on the latest developments in the state budget process.
At least 200 people converged on the halls of the second floor to give a last minute pitch for causes ranging from residential housing for intellectually and developmentally disabled people to adequate funding for nursing homes.
Reacting to pushback from the business community on the revenue package attached to the two-year, $40.3 billion budget approved by the legislature June 3, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has told legislators to either revisit some of the business taxes or to authorize him to do it himself.
After the House Democrats spent about four hours behind closed doors, their leadership would not provide details about how the advocates’ pleas were received. But House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said some legislators expressed support for preserving the funding for human and social services that was approved by the legislature on June 3.
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said the budget put forth by the Appropriations Committee as well as the alternative budget from the Republicans show the legislature’s commitment to restoring extensive cuts to agencies, including the Department of Developmental Services, that were part of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s original budget proposal.
But balancing concerns related to taxing and spending — especially after the budget has been passed — is a delicate act, according to Sharkey.
“So folks may be long on ideas about things they don’t like, but then oftentimes are short on suggestions about how they’re going to pay for those things that they want to change. That’s the challenge in trying to fix certain elements of the budget,” Sharkey said. “The public should know that we are listening and we’re hearing some of the concerns, but we also have to find a way to pay for it.”
In order to get into the caucus room Tuesday morning, lawmakers had to pass through throngs of people waving “#PeopleMatter” signs. The crowd was dominated by those supporting funding for the developmentally disabled as well as the elderly and those who care for them.
One of the people in the hall was Yuri Westry, a healthcare worker who does not want to see nursing homes impacted by the “tweaks” legislative leaders have talked about making to the budget. Direct-care workers in long-term healthcare facilities successfully lobbied for wage increases this session and hope the budget does not change. Westry said lawmakers should take the taxes to pay for it “from the rich.”
Rose Arezzini, 19, of Greenwich, stood with her mother, father and brother, Karl. She handed out a letter about Karl to each passing legislator.
“Please take this, it’s very important,” she said to state Rep. Louis Esposito Jr., D-West Haven. The message described 24-year-old Karl’s autism diagnosis, his affinity for music, and the New Haven-based school he may not be able to afford if funding for residential housing does not come through.
Esposito took the information, as did many others, including state Rep. Betty Boukus, D-Plainville.
Boukus came back out of the caucus later to spend a few minutes with the young man and his family.
She called Karl’s story a compelling one made even more real for lawmakers by his presence in the hall and at previous events during this and other legislative sessions.
Karl has been a voice for the disabled population for several years, putting his wishes for an independent life to music in venues ranging from the Legislative Office Building to the halls of the capitol. He sang his theme song, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” again Tuesday.
Boukus said she supports efforts to protect one of the state’s most vulnerable populations.
“This is what life is about. This is what Connecticut is about. We care for each other,” she said.
But as for this year’s budget saga, Boukus said she’s “just not sure how it’s going to work out.”
Last year, the state appropriated $4 million to address the residential housing backlog, but a DDS report indicated the money was only enough for 100 half-year placements out of the 156 individuals with the most immediate need for service. The agency gave priority to those who live at home with a caregiver who is at least 70 years old.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed budget included funding for 110 people on the residential housing waiting list despite cutting from other areas of the DDS budget. The budget approved June 3 restored most of the governor’s proposed cuts.
Advocates for intellectually and developmentally disabled people want to make sure the funding remains.
Karl’s mother, Lynn Arezzini, said the issue is one of civil rights. “No other group has ever been told that they must live with their parents until their parents die,” she wrote in a letter to lawmakers that she handed out next to her children.
Both mother and daughter said it would be cheaper in the long run to pay for schooling now to help Karl learn to live as independently as possible. Karl’s parents are public school teachers who are struggling to pay the residential fees at Chapel Haven School and don’t know how long they can continue to do so. The day program is funded by the state, according to Rose Arezzini.
“Wouldn’t it be a better use of funding to allow Karl to become more independent and productive, rather than let his independent skills regress until the traumatic day when he becomes an emergency placement following our deaths?” Lynn Arezzini asked.
As of March 5, there were 52 individuals who had started receiving residential services and 92 who received funding allocations, according to a DDS report. There are 116 prioritized individuals who do not receive residential services now but will want or need them within two years.
The needs of at least 1,850 remaining individuals on the waiting list are not considered “urgent, critical or immediate,” according to the priorities outlined in the DDS report.