Legislature looking for more money from Washington, but it may not exist

Washington — In a recount of a very close referendum, New London residents in November narrowly rejected a plan to sell nearly 10 acres of the city’s Riverside Park to the U.S. Coast Guard to expand operations at its military academy.

As soon as the New London vote was finalized, $4.9 million appropriated by Congress in 2010 for the expansion was gone, except for $1 million designated to update the electrical system at the Coast Guard Academy.

The money disappeared because it was victim to a provision that required the return of funds to the U.S. Treasury if it wasn’t spent by a certain date.

Now, as the city faces new money problems and considers selling excess land, there’s no way to negotiate a new deal with the Coast Guard. The academy’s expansion is no longer a priority because the service faces millions of dollars in budget cuts.

Nevertheless, New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio traveled to Washington in March to meet with Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp to see if there was any way to revive the project.

“I was told the Coast Guard was hit very hard by budget cuts and it may be years, maybe as many as 10 years, before there would be funding,” Finizio said.

The Riverside Park project is just one of thousands of proposed local projects that are falling by the wayside as the federal government tightens its belt. And more fiscal pain is coming.

Despite the atmosphere of austerity, Connecticut’s General Assembly hopes it can squeeze more money out of Washington.

About two weeks ago, the bipartisan Program Review and Investigations Committee began a study to determine whether Connecticut is receiving its fair share of federal funding.

State House member Brian Becker, a Democrat who represents the 19th District — comprising West Hartford, Avon and Farmington — was a champion.

“I don’t want to leave any rock unturned,” he said. “The hope is there are millions of dollars that we pay in taxes to Washington that could be brought back to Connecticut.

Becker said preliminary results of the study shows Connecticut is participating “only” in 550 of the 2,200 federal programs available to the state.

“We may not be eligible for some of these programs,” Becker said. “But if we don’t know what they are, we don’t have a chance.”

Becker said the state should “think smartly,” consider what’s available and perhaps even establish a new grant writing office.

But Richard Kogan, a budget expert at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, said he doubts that Connecticut, or any other state, has been slack in seeking federal funds

“It’s right for all states and local agencies to get all the grants to which [they’re] entitled, but there’s little reason to believe that every state in the country isn’t doing that,” he said.

Saying Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has “gone after every federal dollar there is,” Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, was also surprised at the Program Review and Investigation Committee’s study.

“There has been no governor that has been here so often and lobbied so hard for Connecticut,” Larson said.

Even before Malloy was sworn into office last year, Connecticut steadily received more and more money from the federal government.

For example, in 2007 the state received about $32 billion. In 2010 that amount grew to $56 billion.

Much of the federal money the state receives goes to defense contractors and to the state’s Medicaid program. But there are also billions of dollars in transportation funding and grants to state and local governments and that money is the most endangered.

Larson said it will be tough for Connecticut to improve on its federal funding because “these are times of scarcity.”

The 2013 federal budget, likely negotiated by a fractious Congress in a lame duck session after November’s elections, must be cut by billions of dollars, possibly more than $100 billion. The cuts are mandated by a deal approved by Congress last year that paved the way for an increase in the debt ceiling, the amount of money the federal government is allowed to borrow.

Grant programs to state and local governments, which are already shrinking, are expected to take an even bigger hit in next year’s budget.

Even so, Dan DeSimone, who works for Malloy as the head of Connecticut’s office in Washington, said, “Our agencies will comb all the relevant federal agencies for grant opportunities.”

He said he’s also always looking for federal money and so is the delegation.

“The governor has made it priority,” DeSimone said.

But he said most grant programs are “very small pots of money that every state is going after.”

“Sometimes we win, sometimes we don’t,” DeSimone said.

Becker said he didn’t mean to ruffle feathers with his study.

“I would hope we could all work together,” he said. “I think we’re all on the same team.”

The Program Review and Investigations Committee plans to hold a hearing on its study at the end of June and finish work on the investigation at the end of the year.