Elizabeth Regan
Michelle Rivelli (left) expresses her frustration with emergency budget cuts proposed by the govenor while state Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden and Connecticut Community Providers Association Interim CEO Jeffrey Walter look on. (Elizabeth Regan)

Calls for a special session to address Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan to make $103 million in emergency budget cuts were renewed Wednesday by a leading Democrat on the legislature’s Human Services Committee.

Republican leadership applauded the move by the Democrat — Rep. Cathy Abercrombie of Meriden — and capitalized on the momentum by announcing a petition to bring lawmakers back to Hartford to vote on a different way to close the budget deficit.

Abercrombie stood alongside leaders from the state’s two largest associations of human services providers, as well as advocates for those with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities at a press conference Wednesday morning. She said the cuts cannot be made on the backs of the state’s least fortunate residents.

“I think it’s time that we sit together with the governor and talk about what’s appropriate to be cut here,” Abercrombie said. “These rescissions are not appropriate and many of my colleagues are saying the same thing.”

Malloy’s plan takes back about $16 million from social services programs, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, homeless shelters, and residential and day supports for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The advocates said Malloy’s proposal cuts $7.57 million from the Department of Developmental Services and $8.43 million from the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. Both agencies have been targeted for cuts year after year at what advocates say is a “disproportionate” rate.

Abercrombie said if calling lawmakers to the capitol for a special session is what it takes to change the cuts, that’s what should happen — “because this cannot go on anymore.”

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said this week in a letter to Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano that a special session would not be “responsible.” He said they could hold a special session and pass legislation, but the governor would likely veto it and the newly revised budget would still be subject to revision by the governor.

Sharkey’s spokesman, Gabe Rosenberg, said Wednesday that there is clearly frustration among Democrats in the House. Beyond that, he didn’t have anything to add to what Sharkey has already said.

Fasano and House Republican Leader Themis Klarides issued a joint statement later in the day thanking Abercrombie for speaking up.

“The budget should not be balanced on the backs of the most vulnerable. Speaker Sharkey’s erroneous argument that a special session will not benefit anyone is clearly flawed. Lawmakers should do what is right for the people of our state. We cannot give up that fight so easily. We should go into a special session, with Democrats and Republicans around the table with one another, to find a better path together,” Fasano and Klarides said.

They also said they will be circulating a petition to bring lawmakers into special session since the Democratic leadership has not issued a joint call to action. The petition must be signed by a majority of the Senate and the House.

“We can guarantee the signatures of every Republican lawmaker. It will be up to the Democrats to do their part,” the Republican leaders said.

What the cuts to the social services mean on a practical level is that people like Jessie Rivelli, a woman with autism and intellectual disabilities who will celebrate her 21st birthday on Friday, may not have access to services as early as next week, according to her mother, Michelle.

“Now with these new rescissions, we are told it is uncertain if and when our daughter will be able to attend a day program or receive any funding at all,” Michelle Rivelli said. “If Jessie and the 300 other children do not receive funding, their parents will be forced to stay home with them and many will lose their jobs.”

The West Haven-based pediatrician said she first voted for Malloy based largely on his own experience with a learning disability and his support for special education — but she would never vote for him again. “I’ve lost a lot of respect for him, I would say is where I am now,” Rivelli said. 

But what are the alternatives?

Asked how she would prefer to cut the budget, Abercrombie said she would cut transportation funding.

The budget approved earlier this year by the legislature includes a provision to use a half percent of the sales tax for the special transportation fund to help support Malloy’s 30-year, $100 billion transportation vision. But the panel created to review how to fully finance the plan won’t have its report ready for the governor and the legislature until the end of the year.

“We put a lot of money in there, and there is no plan in place,” Abercrombie said. “So those are dollars that we could use right now. Are you going to put transportation before families? I’m not,” she said.

While lawmakers this year approved a statutory “lockbox” to make sure transportation funds aren’t siphoned into the general fund, they failed to take steps toward an amendment that would enshrine the lockbox in the state Constitution.

Abercrombie laughed off the idea of the lockbox when asked if it would affect the state’s ability to use transportation funds to close a budget deficit.

“Ah, well,” she said. “We’ll see.”

Patrick Johnson, interim CEO of the Connecticut Association of Nonprofits, took a dig at another of Malloy’s priorities: the so-called Second Chance Society. He characterized the initiative as a “laudable effort to provide second chances for people coming out of prison,” but said those same people “will discover that access to vital mental health and addiction services will be significantly reduced after the governor cuts $10 million.”

In fact, he said a lack of services may mean more people end up in jail.

“The Department of Correction is becoming the primary provider of services to people with addiction as well as mental health issues,” Johnson said.