- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - While Connecticut lawmakers quickly and overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan plan Tuesday to slash this fiscal year’s $220 million deficit, many warned of the tougher challenge they still face balancing the budget for the new fiscal year that starts July 1.

That unfinished tax-and-spending package must cover a projected $900 million deficit and will likely include large numbers of state employee layoffs and more painful cuts to social services. Each budget year is roughly $20 billion.

“This is not enough,” Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said of the mid-year, deficit-cutting plan that cleared the Senate on a 33-3 vote and the House of Representatives on a 127-16 vote.

“We have to talk about structural changes now,” he said, referring to ideas such as reducing state debt and modifying state employee benefits. “Until we start making our structural changes in this state, we’re going to be here time after time, year after year, making the same cuts and numbers-juggling to make the year balance. That’s wrong. It’s not responsible government.”

Lawmakers agreed Tuesday to change their rules to give the legislature’s budget-writing committees extra time to come up with tax and spending plans for the full legislature to consider. This year’s short session is scheduled to adjourn May 4.

Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he’ll sign the deficit-cutting package. His administration already is determining how many state employees will receive layoff notices in order to generate savings in the new fiscal year. Malloy said a “substantial” number of workers will lose their jobs this fiscal year.

“There’s no way to balance next year’s budget without beginning that process by June 9,” Malloy said. “That’s a reality.”

Hundreds of unionized state public safety employees rallied on the steps of the state Capitol shortly before Tuesday’s vote, warning legislators that large-scale layoffs and cuts to public services will make Connecticut a more dangerous and less law-abiding state.

The deficit-cutting package approved Tuesday does not include any layoffs. It also releases $140 million that was being withheld from Connecticut hospitals. The package scales back some of the cuts Malloy imposed on social service programs using his executive authority.

Cities and towns also praised the bipartisan deal for rejecting a proposed reduction in state aid to municipalities.

“Legislators recognized that the $16.7 million mid-year cut would have shifted the tax burden unfairly onto our already overburdened property taxpayers,” said Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

But Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, warned the deficit-cutting plan is necessary, given the state’s revenue challenges, but still painful. For example, funding was cut from psychiatric clinics for children, temporary cash assistance to certain needy families and programs serving homeless youths and the long-term unemployed.

“We have to remember there are faces in these cuts, there are people behind these issues,” Walker said. “But we have a responsibility as a legislator to make sure we end each day with the bottom line.”

The cuts were too much for Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, who voted against the bill, saying she couldn’t justify voting for a compromise “that places the burden on the same services and people time and time again.”

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