Rell backs off proposal to cut rail service to fund heating assistance

Gov. M. Jodi Rell reversed herself Monday, pledging to oppose any cuts to Metro-North branch line rail service–less than one week after her budget office suggested such reductions to help close a shortfall in the state’s winter heating assistance program.

“I can understand the confusion and questions that people have so let me be quite clear: I do not and will not support cuts to the Metro-North branch lines–Danbury, Waterbury or New Canaan,” Rell wrote in a statement released by her press office. “In fact, no one has made more of a commitment to commuter rail than I have and I will continue to forcefully advocate for rail until I leave office in January.”

The governor’s budget agency, the Office of Policy and Management, submitted a list of potential cuts totaling more than $38 million to the legislature’s Appropriations Committee last week. Included in that list was $5.5 million to be saved by eliminating commuter rail service to Danbury, New Canaan and Waterbury and by canceling expanded service on the Shoreline East line.

“The list of cuts was prepared by the Office of Policy and Management as a menu of options for the legislature to consider as a way to fill a funding hole in the winter home heating assistance program for seniors and low-income families. In hindsight, I can see how inclusion of this item on the list sent the wrong message,” Rell’s statement said. “Let me reiterate that the suggested rail cuts are not cuts that I approve or will support.”

Besides the controversial rail service cutbacks, the administration also suggested reductions to municipal aid and other popular programs involving early childhood education, tourism and economic development, environmental protection and mileage and other expense reimbursements for lawmakers, judges and Executive Branch staff.

Rell’s office had no immediate comment on why the rail suggestion was forwarded to the Appropriations Committee, given the governor’s opposition, or whether Rell objects to any other reductions on the list.

Rell challenged the legislature last week to adopt new cuts to maintain the emergency winter heating assistance program at last year’s program level.

The lame duck Republican governor has been locked in a battle with the Democrat-controlled legislature for two months now over the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Largely supported with federal dollars, LIHEAP helps low-income families pay for winter heating.

Rell urged lawmakers to tighten program eligibility and benefits in late September, anticipating reduced federal funding. Legislators opted not to do so, noting a projected 18,800 families would lose assistance and thousands more would receive reduced aid.

But legislators also declined to appropriate any additional state dollars for the program. The administration estimates that unless $33 million in new funding is found, all budget money will have been pledged to needy households at some point this week, leaving the Department of Social Services and the nonprofit community agencies that assist them unable to process more applications for assistance.