Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy sat quietly with his budget director, security detail, and other staff members Thursday listening as hundreds lined up to testify against his budget cuts.
It was the first time in recent memory anyone could recall a governor attending an Appropriations Committee public hearing.
Malloy stayed for about an hour and heard a dozen residents speak about how the budget cuts would potentially impact their quality of life.
Asked for his thoughts, Malloy said “I just came to listen.”
One of the residents he heard was Amanda Sage of Monroe, who talked about how Bridge House in Bridgeport helped her find employment and finish her education so she could become a pharmacy technician. She encouraged the Appropriations Committee to continue funding the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which in turn funds Bridge House. She said without state funding the program that helped save her life wouldn’t exist.
“The money you spend really does save people,” Sage, who struggles with bipolar disorder, said.
The estimated cut to the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services is about $71 million.
Jeffrey Walters, interim CEO of the Connecticut Community Nonprofit Alliance, said he’s glad the governor was in the room listening to the impact his budget would have on people. He said the state could learn a few things about how to stretch a dollar from the nonprofit community.
But that dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to.
Heather Gates, president and CEO of Community Health Resources, said Malloy’s budget will require her organization to end some services it offers to some of the neediest Connecticut residents.
“If we close programs as a result of this budget and make no mistake we will, they will have nowhere else to turn for help,” Gates said.
She said last year the Appropriations Committee “courageously” restored funding for outpatient substance abuse treatment and helped push through a Medicaid rate increase for behavioral health services. That helped avoid any disruption to outpatient health services in many locations throughout the state.
“But here we are again with a proposed budget that is far worse than the one presented last year,” Gates said. “The human service sector would shoulder almost 72 percent of the proposed cuts. That means the most vulnerable citizens of the state are being asked to shoulder the impact of these cuts. That is just not acceptable.”
She said high deductibles and products offered through the health insurance exchange don’t always cover needed mental health and substance abuse services.
The cut to Gates’ organization alone is $4.3 million and would require her to layoff about 70 staff members, which is a 10 percent reduction of the workforce and they would close one or more of their outpatient clinics and some programs.
However, it’s difficult to say what will be cut given the consolidation of the line items in each agency’s’ budget.
Causing angst among lawmakers and members of the public is the way in which Malloy presented his budget this year. Instead of proposing a budget that funds specific line items in each state agency, Malloy proposed a budget that consolidates most of them and gives the commissioner of that agency the power to use the money as they see fit.
That means it’s unclear exactly what programs will continue to receive money.
Defending his budget Thursday morning on WNPR’s “Where We Live” radio program, Malloy said the way budgeting has been done is “diabolical.” He said just because some lawmaker was able to get something into the budget years ago the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis continues to count it as if it’s going to be funded and then gets to say the state is running a potential deficit in future budget years.
“I think we need to modernize the system,” Malloy said.
Lawmakers are still debating whether they want to adopt Malloy’s new way of budgeting because it takes away some of the power over the state’s purse strings, at the same time it means they won’t have to deal with as much during an election year.
During his radio interview, the governor also warned lawmakers that “we’re not going to spend more money,” than the state brings in.
“If you insist on budgeting differently then rebuild the budget you want, but understand that we’re not going to spend more money,” Malloy said.