Federal grants patch ‘safety net’ as state funding falls

With demand for safety net programs growing, Gov. M. Jodi Rell on Wednesday proposed a social services budget that depends heavily on one-time federal stimulus grant money but reduces state spending on programs including rental assistance and aid for the elderly, disabled, blind and homeless.

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Gov. M. Jodi Rell

“We have a state government that has outgrown the ability of our citizens to pay for it. We need to recognize that not every service, not every program, not every function is absolutely essential,” Rell told state legislators.

But advocates for social services faulted Rell for cutting programs without proposing revenue increases.

“I think its unfortunate the governor believes the only way to get out of the budget situation is to make cuts to these services. There is a whole revenue side that she is not approaching,” said Jane McNichol, executive director of Legal Assistance Resource center which advocates for low-income individuals.

The number of state residents enrolled in social service programs increased 20 percent from 2008 to 2009, to nearly 1 million people, mostly for the federally-funded Medicaid and food stamp programs.

The one-time infusion of stimulus money will fund a $219.7 million increase in Medicaid spending, but other programs paid for with state funds would be cut $126.7 million. In total, Rell’s proposed budget adjustments would increase the budget of the Department of Social Services by $99.2 million, to about $5 billion.

Department of Social Services Commissioner Michael P. Starkowski said the jump in federal money is a “lifeline” for Connecticut, but the agency still has to keep close watch on the allocation of state dollars.

“This is a situation where we have to make sure we have a government we can afford. With an agency with major entitlements like ours it’s very difficult to do that because you never know what the demand is going to be like. One change in the economic climate and our enrollment goes sky high,” he said, noting that the state’s 8.9 percent unemployment rate continues to drive people to DSS programs.

DSS cuts

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams, Jr. echoed the state’s reliance on federal dollars for health and other social programs.

“We are not guaranteed to continue receiving this level of money, so we must look at every dollar and decide what we can afford,” he said. “Right now we cannot afford to expand these services because we are still figuring out how to afford what we have now.”

In addition to recommending cuts to more than a dozen programs, Rell proposed that those receiving Medicaid begin paying co-payments of up to $20 per month; individuals “vulnerable,” and making less than the poverty level, would be exempt. She also proposed increasing co-payments and premiums for Medicare, and the state’s Husky B and Charter Oak programs.

Carol Walter, executive director of Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, said her reaction to Rell’s social services proposal was “ouch.”

Walter said if the governor’s proposal is adopted by the legislature, services for the homeless will have been cut three years in a row. For this upcoming year Rell is recommending cutting $2.4 million from the original $47.3 allocation for housing and homeless issues.

“The demand for all of these safety net programs is increasing, and a decrease in funding is felt tremendously,” said Walter. “There is no fat left to cut from these programs. It’s already been cut as much as it can be.”

Connecticut Voices for Children estimates Rell’s proposal would result in $74.4 million in funding cuts for early care, health, and other services for children.

Jamey Bell, executive director for the organization, described Rell’s budget proposals as “one-time quick fixes.” But she said she’s relieved the governor did not pitch the same “extreme” cuts she has in her recent deficit mitigation plan. The legislature rejected those cuts in December.