Budget deal is a mixed bag for Connecticut

WASHINGTON–The federal spending deal, reached by top congressional negotiators on Friday to avert a government shutdown, would shrink emergency heating assistance for the poor. It would slash high-speed rail funding. And it would trim the Army Corps of Engineer’s budget, jeopardizing dredging projects in Long Island Sound.

That’s the bad news for Connecticut, spelled out in the line-item detail of the fiscal year 2011 spending bill.

The good news: the final agreement includes $3.4 billion in 2011 funding for the Navy’s Virginia class submarines, allowing Electric Boat to proceed with plans to boost production from one submarine a year to two, and another $1.7 billion for advanced procurement on the subs for 2012.

The measure also provides $623 million in research and development money to replace the Ohio-class submarine, also built by EB. Just as important, Connecticut lawmakers say, the bill does not include any money for the alternate engine for the Pentagon’s Joint Strike Fighter, giving all that business to Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney.

“Those are very pro-Connecticut measures, which, particularly in terms of job retention and growth, is critical,” said Rep. Joseph Courtney, a Democrat whose 2nd District includes EB’s Groton facility.

Still, Courtney said he’s concerned about other elements of the bill, including a $2.9 billion cut in high-speed rail dollars, which he called “counterproductive” for the economy in general and for Connecticut in particular.

The high-speed rail provision includes a $400 million rescission from the $2.4 billion pot of money Florida’s governor rejected earlier this year. Connecticut has applied for $227 million of that money for its proposed New Haven-to-Springfield line, but so have two dozen other states. They will all now be competing for part of a smaller pie, if this spending agreement is approved.

Courtney also noted that the Army Corps of Engineers “took a haircut” in the deal, and he fears that will make it harder to get money for dredging in Long Island Sound. “That’s a never-ending battle… and this is not going to make life any easier,” Courtney said.

Only two members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation said definitively how they would vote on the measure.

Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said he would be a “no” vote and voiced “deep concerns” about how the cuts will affect lower and middle-income workers.

“Lost in this discussion has been, where are the jobs and how are we getting people back to work and how are we sustaining people that need it,” Larson said, adding that he’s worried the 2011 spending bill will deal a blow to the fragile economic recovery.

Asked if he thought President Obama gave up too much in the negotiations, Larson said yes. “We don’t like to see a debate where… you start off where the other guy is and then give more,” he said. “It in fact is what they did.”

He said he’s worried that heading into the 2012 election cycle and “dealing with the extremities of the Tea Party,” Obama has “moved too much to the right.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Sen. Joseph Lieberman said the Connecticut independent would support the measure.

“While he doesn’t agree with every provision, and understands that many of these cuts will be painful, he believes it is an important first step to reducing our unsustainable national debt that threatens our economy and jeopardizes the prosperity of future generations,” said his deputy press secretary, Jeremy Kirkpatrick.

Others seemed torn over the proposal on Tuesday, as they began to sift through the details and determine the implications. Although the White House and congressional leaders agreed on a top line number on Friday night–about $38 billion in cuts from 2010 levels, or $78 billion from the President’s fiscal year 2011 budget request–lawmakers only released the precise details Monday morning.

The proposed bill, which is set for a vote in the House and Senate on Thursday, takes the knife to a wide array of non-defense programs, from agriculture to transportation. For example, the proposal calls for slicing $390 million, based on 2010 funding levels, from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program’s contingency fund, or LIHEAP. In addition to the $2.9 billion cut in high-speed rail funds, it would also pare another $991 million from federal transit money.

Community Development Block Grants to the states would be reduced by $43 million. Other programs would get increases, from a $5 billion bump up for the Pentagon to a modest hike for the Head Start early childhood education program

“I’m encouraged that some of the veterans’ programs will be enhanced. I’m discouraged that high speed rail suffers a cut,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut.

He said he was not sure yet how he would vote on the measure. “I really need to see what the impacts to Connecticut are” before deciding, Blumenthal said.

On the cuts to LIHEAP’s contingency fund, for example, Blumenthal said hopes that Connecticut is far enough into spring that those reductions will not impact the state. But he said he wants to make sure the pull-back of that money would not affect LIHEAP funding for next winter.

Blumenthal wasn’t the only one withholding judgment on Tuesday. Reps. Chris Murphy, D-5th District and Jim Himes, D-4th District, were unavailable for comment on Tuesday.

Courtney said he was still undecided, although his initial review made him inclined to support the bill.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, didn’t declare a position on the bill Tuesday, but was critical of several provisions. She noted the proposal is almost $80 billion lower than President Barack Obama’s 2011 request.

“I don’t have the line item on each one of those, but I can guarantee you that the bulk of those cuts are going to come and hurt families,” DeLauro said. With federal stimulus aid drying up, she added, “people are going to fall off a cliff here now and there isn’t anything to cover them.”

She singled out a $600 million slice in federal funding for community health centers. “Who uses community health centers? This is primary care for women and children mostly,” DeLauro said.