Connecticut Students for a Dream rally for expanded Medicaid coverage Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Student activists rallied outside the state Capitol Thursday with demands that policymakers fund an expansion of Medicaid benefits for young immigrants through one of countless bills certain to be spurned next week by a legislative budget proposal.

The group, Connecticut Students for a Dream, assembled in the unseasonably warm sun to promote an expansion of Connecticut’s Medicaid program, known as HUSKY Health, to otherwise eligible undocumented children until they reach 18.

The bill, which advanced in March out of the Human Services Committee, builds on last year’s law setting the coverage cut-off for undocumented immigrant children at 12. The students on the Capitol lawn called for a broader expansion to 26 or beyond. 

Given Connecticut’s flush Rainy Day Fund and years of consecutive budget surpluses, they were confident the state could afford the additional expense to fund health care, a human right. 

“Legislators, don’t be funny. We all know that there is money,” they chanted.

That rhyme, delivered with the metallic timbre of a bullhorn, might feel familiar to members of the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, which was putting its finishing touches this week on a legislative rebuttal to the $50.5 billion spending plan proposed by Gov. Ned Lamont back in February. 

In an interview Thursday, Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat who co-chairs the panel, said that public awareness of billions in budget surpluses have fueled spending expectations that her committee can not possibly meet as a result of fiscal guardrails like a cap on state spending. 

“I think everybody’s going to be disappointed,” Osten said. “I think there isn’t a group out there that’s going to be thrilled with what we do.” 

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

The budget proposed by the governor consisted largely of ongoing spending obligations like previously approved wage increases for state workers and annualized increases for private providers, Osten said. 

As a result, the committee has very little latitude to include funding for other legislative priorities while still keeping its proposal within the fiscal guardrails, which were initially adopted as part of a bipartisan budget in 2017 and reapproved by state lawmakers earlier this year. 

Numerous lawmakers and interest groups have vied this year for additional funding including supporters of providing free meals school meals for all children, advocates of accelerating increases in education funding for low-income school districts, and proponents of boosting state support for the University of Connecticut

All of those and more have landed on the desk of Osten’s committee.

“The Appropriations Committee has been expected to handle requests from every single group,” she said. “It is beyond the capacity of what we are able to cover.”

The result will be disappointing for most of the members of the public and advocates who travel to the state Capitol to push for a share of state coffers that appear to be teeming. 

On Thursday, some of those advocates called the system unjust. 

“What is not acceptable is the people in the building behind us, forcing our community into a debate about human rights that should not be up for debate,” SEIU State Council Executive Director Kooper Caraway said of the Husky proposal. “What is not acceptable is … asking us to choose, does the dialysis machine get unplugged when they’re 19 or they’re 27. At what age does the person get thrown out of their hospital bed?”

The governor’s budget proposal did not include additional funding to broaden medicaid eligibility for immigrants. Osten said her committee was still looking to see what can be worked into their proposal, but noted that lawmakers had yet to see the fiscal impact of the Husky expansion that went into effect in January.

“While the budget’s not yet out, we’re still looking to see what we can do,” she said. “I don’t believe it will be exactly what the Human Services Committee put out.”