Democrats Change Budget Priorities, But Come Close To Bottom Line
It spends nearly $1 million less than Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget, but the Appropriations Committee budget also makes several changes to some of his major policy initiatives, including education reform.
Rep. Toni Walker, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said the proposal keeps intact the pillars of education laid out by the governor, but it made some adjustments.
The proposal keeps the $50 million in Education Cost Sharing grants, but it reduces by about half the amount of money set aside for competitive grants and for new charter schools. However, it doubles the amount of preschool slots from 500 to 1,000, adds $1 million for a kindergarten to third grade reading program, and adds $2.8 million for vocational agricultural schools.
“We felt it was important to try and bring up all levels of education to the same funding level,” Walker said referring to the increase in vocational agricultural school spending. The Republican alternative budget proposal suggested increasing funding for the schools by $5 million.
Sen. Toni Harp, the other co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said they put money toward education, but it’s just not as much as the governor.
The governor’s budget spends an additional $128 million out of a $2.91 billion education budget on his reform proposals. The Appropriations Committee budget cuts the education budget by about $23.22 million from the governor’s proposal.
Asked about what he thought about the proposals at an afternoon press conference, Malloy said he thinks the Appropriations Committee probably has a different set of priorities when it comes to education spending.
“If you look at education spending on a pre-K through 12 level, I think there’s about $23 million less. I think that perhaps is representative of a different priority,” Malloy said.
But “there’s a lot of things written in pencil right now,” he said borrowing a phrase from Rep. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford.
Regarding the overall budget, Malloy said there are “a few things in there that are non-starters, quite frankly.”
One of those things is how the legislature funds the conversion to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.
“With respect to the legislature’s desire perhaps to not be as supportive of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles as I am and will continue to be, I think the people want GAAP implemented.” Malloy said. “They want it implemented yesterday, not tomorrow.”
“Any changes with respect to the ability of my administration to administer the budget will be opposed quite vigorously,” Malloy said, drawing a line in the sand for lawmakers.
Instead of using appropriated funds, the Appropriations Committee budget asks the governor to first look for the money he needs to convert to GAAP from non-appropriated or off-budget sources.
“We’re still committed to GAAP,” Harp said after the committee meeting Thursday. “But if there isn’t a surplus out there what we’re saying is use some funds we’ve swept before for the GAAP amount.”
An example of an off-budget account would be the abandoned state property account.
“We’re not saying don’t do GAAP. We’re just saying get it from the non-appropriated funds,” Harp said.
The Appropriations Committee budget also eliminates a fare increase for bus and rail riders that is expected to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. Bus and rail fares were increased 4 percent this year and were expected to increase another 4 percent next year. The committee restored about $3.9 million in order to eliminate the need for the fare hike.
Despite the tough fiscal times, Walker said the budget also uses $1 million to create a year-round jobs program for young people. The funding will go to the cities with the highest levels of youth crime.
“This budget provides so many things that so many people have asked for,” Walker said.
Both Walker and Harp contend it was compiled with bipartisan support, but the vote fell mostly along party lines.
The budget, which was debated all afternoon by the Appropriations Committee before being passed on a 34-15 vote, also takes a strong stance on the state’s health care programs.
The committee gets rid of the governor’s recommended asset test for low-income adults who receive Medicaid.
The Malloy administration argues that the Medicaid expansion the state started in 2010 under former Gov. M. Jodi Rell resulted in significantly higher costs than initially envisioned. Officials say that since federal approval of the program, the caseload has increased 60 percent from 46,156 to 74,073, “in large part due to the elimination of the asset test.”
But in order to receive approval for the asset test the state would need to apply for a federal government waiver. Harp said she doesn’t believe the state would receive a waiver and can’t count on the savings that might result.
“We were the first state in the nation to add that population into Medicaid,” Harp said.
She said there was no way the state could count on more than $20 million in savings if it still needed to apply for a waiver. She said part of what she and Walker tried to do with this budget is to create a level of predictability.
Republican lawmakers urged Democrats to embrace the hiring of additional Medicaid fraud investigators. But Harp and Walker weren’t convinced it would bring in the $84 million Republicans estimated.
The committee also restored about $13 million in funding to the Department of Children and Families because they didn’t want the state to be in violation of a court order, Walker said. The governor took away about $24 million from the department because he felt it would save about that much if it was able to more quickly move the children back home with their families and out of group homes or state facilities.
The budget also tosses out the governor’s seven most recent state agency consolidations.
“We discovered the consolidations we did last year still are not working,” Walker said. “In fact, the auditors came and talked to us about it and said a lot of the agencies are still struggling to figure out who is actually in charge.”
Walker and Harp said they want to focus on the consolidations made last year before they move forward with more consolidations that don’t save the state any money.