Democrats say they’ll pass budget; GOP minority is opposed

The Democrat-controlled General Assembly will attempt to wipe a $726 million deficit from the next state budget today as the 2010 legislative session approaches its midnight deadline.

Despite House and Senate leaders’ assertions that rank-and-file Democrats grudgingly endorsed the $19 billion package, which avoids tax hikes but cuts nearly $172 million from current programs and relies on $1 billion in bonding, a final draft wasn’t expected to be ready for a vote before this morning.

“You’re not happy with everything in it, but you’re happy with the outcome,” Rep. John Geragosian, D-New Britain, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, adding that avoiding tax hikes and reducing planned borrowing from $1.3 billion to $1 billion were major accomplishments in the compromise package negotiated with Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

Funding for the state’s prison system, already cut significantly in recent years, is in line for another $15.4 million reduction in the tentative budget agreement.

Lawmakers say the cost can easily be saved during the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1 because the number of people incarcerated is continuing to decline.

“You can save some serious money if you know what you are doing,” said Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “Sending more people to prison doesn’t mean you will get less crime.”

There are currently 18,260 inmates in the state prisons — a 1,500-person drop from the same time two years ago, reports the Department of Corrections.

But Larry Dorman, a union spokesman who represents 5,000 parole and corrections officers, said the DOC is already operating on a “tight budget” and the prisons are “chronically understaffed.”

“Even if the prison population declines by a couple thousand you are still understaffed,” he said. “If these millions aren’t offset by a significant decline in the population then our concerns are heightened because of staffing and safety.”

The DOC has shed more than 500 full-time jobs in the past two years. If this $15.4 million cut is implemented, the state’s 17 prisons will be operating with $63.9 million less than they had been in fiscal 2008.

DOC Spokesman Brian Garnett said it has been hard to operate with the cuts.

“We have been underfunded in past years. … We are pretty close to breaking even this year,” he said.

Last year the state closed Webster Correctional Institute in Cheshire, a 450-inmate facility that was that was housing just 220 inmates. When it closed, Webster was costing the state $3.4 million a year to operate.

Legislators insist another prison closing is not on the table, but Garnett did acknowledge there are currently a “significant” number of unused beds. Garnett could not immediately determine just how much unused capacity exists in the system.

Connecticut reversed a 20-year climb in prison population in 2004 by implementing re-entry policies to help prisoners get housing and a job upon their release, Garnett said. There was a one-year jump in 2009, however, due to changes in parole laws following the Cheshire home invasion murders. Those laws have since been modified, he said.

Lawlor said the decline in prison populations is also attributable to prosecutors and municipalities taking advantage of prison alternatives for low-risk lawbreakers.

“They have created a laundry list of alternatives. If you can keep them out of prison then you are not only appeasing Republicans by cutting costs but you please Democrats by not sending people to jail who don’t deserve to be there,” Lawlor said.

Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, who has six prisons and 8,000 prisoners in his district, said he supports cutting the DOC budget by $15.4 million but said the cuts need to be monitored closely throughout the year.

“You get to a point where you can only cut so much. Will the population decline $10 million worth? I don’t know,” he said. “The devil might be in the details.”

Though the budget proposal would add about $7 million in spending to the preliminary $18.93 billion budget adopted last fall for 2010-11, it actually cuts $171.8 million from the funding level legislative analysts said was needed to offset inflation and maintain programs at current levels.

Besides the prison-related reductions, the revised budget also would target tourism programs and an already-delayed state contract review agency for cuts.

The plan 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.

Though it’s risky to attempt to move the budget through two chambers on the last day, when minority Republicans can kill anything with a prolonged filibuster, Rep. Cameron C. Staples, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, was confident it would be sent to Rell’s desk before midnight. “We’re optimistic,” he said. “It’ll happen.”

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, didn’t promise any filibuster, but did guarantee Republicans would offer an alternative budget that avoids both tax increases and borrowing.  It accomplishes the latter through a plan to sell Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks and the much-smaller Hartford-Brainard Airport, and some additional spending cuts.

Cafero said a House Republican analysis based on April 2009 proposed sale of Chicago Midway International Airport for $2.5 billion concluded the two state airports here could be sold for $800 million.

The proposed borrowing in the tentative budget Democrats’ negotiated with Rell would be paid off, in part, with new electric bill surcharges, and the Cafero predicted residents would rather state government get out of the airport business instead.

Republicans in the House and Senate have pledged to oppose the compromise budget.