Social services survive Conn. budget axe _ for now

AP News
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Posted: Dec 23, 2009 10:53 AM

School-based health clinics, daycare programs for the needy and stem cell research programs are all getting a reprieve in the deficit-cutting plan passed by Connecticut's legislative Democrats.

But given the state's continuing fiscal woes, there's fear such initiatives will eventually be targeted again as lawmakers and the governor struggle to close a looming state budget gap.

"Clearly the battle is going to have to continue," said Kevin Maloney, spokesman for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, whose organization lobbied to fend off a reduction in state aid proposed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, warning legislators that such a cut would ultimately lead to higher property taxes.

"That campaign will remain active going forward during the regular session," he said. "We expect that with the state's deficit situation, the governor's address and activity beyond that, we will mostly likely have to continue to do battle."

The Democratic-controlled General Assembly on Monday passed a plan, along mostly party lines, that restored many of the cuts Rell, a Republican, had proposed in her deficit-cutting plan. Rell has not said whether she'll sign the bill into law, but criticized it for only reducing spending by $12.4 million.

In September, the Democrats passed a two-year, $37.6 billion budget without Rell's signature. That plan is now estimated to be about $467 million short. That amount, however, includes a planned $130 million sales tax reduction that had to be scrapped because of falling revenues.

Paul Pescatello, president and CEO of CURE, Connecticut United for Research Excellence, Inc., which advocates for bio-science in the state, said even though the Democrats replenished the funding Rell suggested cutting for stem cell research, he's wary about the future.

"There is this looming deficit and the tax receipts are not coming in anywhere near as robustly as people had hoped," Pescatello said. "We have to be ever-vigilant to protect these funds."

Rell's deficit plan called for transferring $10 million from the Stem Cell Research Trust Fund, created in 2004 to encourage the research in Connecticut in hopes of expanding the state's biomedical industry. The 2004 law pledged $100 million over 10 years.

During Monday's debate, Republican lawmakers said they understand that many of the reductions proposed by Rell are unpopular, but given the state's continued revenue problems, she's had little choice. They criticized Democrats for not doing more to reduce spending, predicting another special session will be needed to address the deficit.

"She's the only one actually cutting spending in state government," said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield.

If there is another deficit-cutting session, Kathy Queen, executive director of the Wallingford Community Daycare, a state-funded daycare program for low and moderate-income families, said she's optimistic her program will be spared.

Rell had proposed reducing state funding to the 105 centers, but the Democrats rejected the cuts.

"I think eventually people in the legislature are very careful because they want to do the right thing and they know that this is the right thing," Queen said. "It's not just the right thing for kids, it's the right thing for families, it's the right thing for the economy."