- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - There may be a tentative $19.7 billion Democratic budget agreement on the table, but that doesn’t mean the debate is over.

Complaints about the 11th-hour plan, ranging from proposed cuts in state aid to local governments to the sweep of revenues earmarked to help reduce energy costs, are expected to bubble up as more details of the proposal emerge.

“There’s a number of areas that are concerning,” said Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, the top House Republican on the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee. She’s particularly worried about proposed cuts in substance abuse and mental health treatment grants, as well as the financial impact on cities and towns of eliminating funds that compensate school districts for transporting private and parochial school students.

“I appreciate the efforts, but I think we really need to look at those municipal aids,” she said, adding how funding is also reduced to help cities and towns provide tax relief to elderly residents.

Majority Democratic legislative leaders decided Wednesday, the final day of the regular legislative session, to delay a planned vote on the budget bill until a special session, saying there wasn’t enough time for the debate. The Senate plans to meet Thursday, while the House of Representatives had not yet announced a special session date.

While House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said none of her members will vote for the bill based on what they know about it, many rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers have not yet reviewed the full budget proposal, which was still being drafted late last week. Only the bare-bones details of the plan were released publicly Thursday.

Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who signed off on the deal Tuesday, has warned Democratic leaders against acquiescing to demands for changes between now and the special session.

“If this delay begins a discussion about reopening the agreement in order to find a way to avoid difficult decisions, that’s unacceptable,” Malloy said. “I will not move from the principles we’ve agreed to. I want to reassure the citizens of Connecticut that if we don’t take the necessary action together, I will take whatever steps necessary to bring our budget into balance.”

The new fiscal year that begins July 1 is estimated to be $960 million in deficit, a figure that has consistently worsened since January due to slumping state revenue collections.

Democrats have said the budget agreement cuts $825 million from the second year of the two-year, $40.3 billion budget the legislature passed last year. They said it doesn’t include tax increases and does not use money in the state’s rainy day fund.

The bill makes cuts throughout state government, affecting everything from dental services for the needy to adult education programs. It reduces state employee overtime, imposes higher medical co-pays for non-union workers, relies on savings from privatizing group homes for the disabled, closes a prison, and scales back funding for hospitals and nursing homes. A planned cost of living increase in payments to private nonprofit social service agencies is delayed, while cash assistance programs for the poor are reduced by one percent.

Brian Flaherty, senior vice president for public policy at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said he’s glad to hear this year’s plan does not rely on business and corporate tax increases like last year’s budget, which prompted major employers to threaten to leave Connecticut. But he’s not taking that for granted, as the impact of the proposed cuts sink in with lawmakers.

“Until it’s in black and white, the votes are cast, the bill is signed, that’s concerning,” he said. “And until it’s backed up with spending reforms that make sure that the tax alarm isn’t going to off again. It can’t be a snooze bar. Connecticut has done snooze bar budgets that are just going to put the problem off for a while.”

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