Democrats offer Connecticut budget that replenishes many Malloy cuts, changes spending cap

Leaders of the Democratic-controlled budget-writing committee have crafted a two-year, $40.5 billion spending plan for Connecticut that would restore many of the social service and health care cuts proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and decried by advocates as draconian.

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Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said state funding is "probably about 90 percent back to normal" for many of those programs.

"The main thing is to maintain the services," she said. "They're not going to be at the vibrance that they were last year, but they're still there and what we have to do is figure out how we maintain them without costing people services."

Members of the Appropriations Committee were scheduled to vote Monday afternoon on the plan, which spends $605 million more than Malloy's budget over two years in the General Fund, the state's main spending account. The Finance Revenue and Bonding Committee has until May 1 to vote on a corresponding revenue package. Ultimately, both plans will become the basis for negotiations between the legislature and the Democratic governor on a final budget agreement.

The legislative Democrats' proposed spending plan would come in well below the state's constitutional spending cap. But that's mostly because of a proposed change in the spending cap's rules. Under their proposal, unfunded pension liabilities for state employees, teachers and judges would no longer be counted toward the overall spending figure.

If approved, it would mark the second change in recent years in how the cap is interpreted.

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In 2013, Malloy and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly agreed to shift about $6 billion in mostly health care spending out from under the spending cap, which was imposed in 1991 to place limits on state spending following passage of a personal state income tax. Two years ago, the legislature's minority Republicans criticized moving the Medicaid spending off-budget, a debate that could be repeated this year even though the GOP also wants to replenish many of Malloy's cuts.

The Democrats' spending plan replenishes funding for health care coverage for certain poor adults, including pregnant women. It also restores the state's Medicaid reimbursement rate to hospitals and $18 million of Malloy's proposed $25 million in cuts in grants to mental health providers. But Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, the other Appropriations Committee co-chair, said there was not enough money to provide a cost-of-living increase to nonprofit social service agencies — an issue she said could be revisited later this session.

The budget proposal also restores funding for libraries, state parks, youth service bureaus, regional tourism districts and other initiatives. However, it does not expand seats in charter schools, as Malloy had propsed. Lawmakers also trimmed funding for Malloy's proposed Second Chance Society initiative, which includes programs to help offenders transition back into society.

Many of the cuts restored fully or partially in the Democrats' budget were also restored in the budget proposal offered Friday by the legislature's Republicans. The GOP has called for givebacks from state employees to help cover the cost, including a one-year hiring freeze.

"The core function of government is to protect the most vulnerable. The costs of fundamental programs should not be shouldered on the backs of those who can least afford it and those who already face many challenges," said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven. "We need to work collaboratively to prioritize people over politics."