Tentative budget counts on less crowded prisons, restores funds for courts

The tentative state budget deal presented to legislators this morning relies on more than $15 million in savings tied to reduced prison populations, as well as additional cuts targeting tourism programs and an already-delayed state contract review agency.

According to draft documents obtained by The Connecticut Mirror, the plan would reduce overall spending by $171.8 million from the preliminary $18.93 billion budget for 2010-11 adopted last September. Much of the remaining savings comes from freezing vacant positions or extending cuts imposed in the middle of this fiscal year to personnel and other expense accounts in more than 60 agencies and departments.

The proposal, struck late Monday by negotiators for Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the legislature’s Democratic majority, does increase funding for the Judicial Branch by $1.4 million over the original 2010-11 budget. Sources said that move stems from concerns raised earlier this year both by Democratic lawmakers and court officials that nearly $8 million in cuts imposed this year on the Judicial Branch forced the closure of several courthouses and law libraries and prevented the hiring of needed court marshals.

The plan also adds another $10.6 million in spending to the original 2010-11 budget to expand subsidies and mitigate fee hikes on commuter rail lines.

One of the single-largest areas of savings, about $15.4 million, depends on the state’s prison population continuing its downward trend as government tries to expand programs to rehabilitate more non-violent offenders in the community.

According to the latest analysis from Office of Policy and Management’s Criminal Justice Policy & Planning Division, the prison population, which stood at 18,414 in February and had fallen to 18,300 in April, should drop to 18,155 by the start of the new fiscal year in July.

The state’s tourism industry would take a hit under this proposal, which continues and expands cuts imposed this fiscal year on 29 different attractions or regional tourism promotion groups.

The State Contracting Standards Board, a new watchdog panel charged in statute with safeguarding hundreds of millions of dollars worth of annual contract awards yet still not created in reality, would be formally delayed until the 2011-12 fiscal year. This would save more than $885,000.

The board, which was supposed to have started work on Jan. 1, still is waiting for an executive director, which Rell has a statutory duty to appoint.

But the administration said in early January that it was uncertain about hiring an executive director at this time given that the current year’s state budget was $518 million in deficit. That budget now is projected to be at least $105 million in surplus.

But Rell and lawmakers are trying to eliminate a $726 million deficit in the preliminary 2010-11 budget without increasing taxes.