Bill to bolster healthcare and education spending advances

WASHINGTON-The U. S. Senate moved forward on a $26.1 billion emergency aid package for cash-strapped states on Wednesday, which could help Connecticut officials preserve teacher jobs and avoid cuts to health care services for the poor.

Failure to pass the bill would put a $376 million hole in this year’s state budget. Although the measure advanced by the Senate Wednesday has less money than originally proposed, state officials said the shortfall would be manageable.

The Senate bill includes $16.1 billion to help states cover the cost of Medicaid, the health care safety net program for the poor, as well as $10 billion to local school districts to help avoid teacher lay-offs this fall.

The measure must still pass both the Senate and the House. But after an intense lobbying effort by governors and teachers’ unions, as well as changes to the way the bill was paid for, Democratic leaders on Wednesday garnered 61 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster, which had been a major obstacle to passage.

A final Senate vote could come later this week. Although the House had already left Washington for a long August recess, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced Wednesday that she would call lawmakers back next week to take up the measure.

“We’re talking about 250,000 jobs hanging in the balance,” said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., referring to the Democrats’ estimate of how many jobs will be saved by the legislation. “It’s obviously critical. This is essential that we don’t throw thousands of more people on the unemployment rolls.”

State officials in Connecticut and across the country had initially lobbied Congress for much more in emergency federal aid-$24 billion in Medicaid funds and $23 billion in education money. Connecticut’s Education Commissioner, Mark McQuillan, said in June that without that funding, there would be “dire consequences” for the state’s public schools.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the state legislature assumed, when they approved in 2010-2011 budget, that they would get the Medicaid funds-to the tune of $266 million. The new measure would shave that down to about $199 million for the state, according to an estimate from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. But even that smaller sum was greeted with cheers in Hartford.

“The idea that we only get $200 million instead of $260 million is still wonderful news,” said state Rep. John Geragosian, D-New Britain, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “That’s significantly helpful.”

Of the $10 billion in education jobs money, Connecticut would get about $110 million, according to Thomas Murphy, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.

“This is welcome news,” said Murphy. “There are local and state officials who have been very anxious about this in Connecticut.” And while it doesn’t provide all the money the state needs, he said, “it really helps us to avoid a cliff drop” if it comes through.

Reaction from Rell and Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Independent, was more muted.

“The governor has been working with her budget office to identify savings should the federal money fall short of what was anticipated,” said Donna Tommelleo, Rell’s spokeswoman. “However, since Congress has not passed a final version, it is premature to discuss any specifics and Governor Rell remains hopeful that the federal funds will be there in the end.”

Lieberman said in a statement that while he supported the measure, he was seriously concerned about some spending cuts to the Department of Defense that were proposed to help pay for the state aid. Lieberman’s office cited, for example, a $28 million rescission to the Army National Guard’s Operation and Maintenance budget, a cut that could adversely affect tuition assistance programs for soldiers. Lieberman indicated that he would try to resolve the concerns before the measure becomes law.