Washington – The massive omnibus spending bill creates winners and losers – and at first blush it seems that Connecticut is chiefly in the winner’s column.
Like other state governments, the Malloy administration is still trying to determine the impact of the $1.1 trillion federal budget approved by Congress last week.
But there’s no doubt that at least one big winner is Connecticut’s defense industry. The omnibus bill allocates more than $6 billion for the Virginia-class submarine program, a sub built by Groton-based Electric Boat.
Also fully funded is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, whose engines are built by Pratt & Whitney.
Sikorsky is in the winner’s circle as well. The omnibus bill contains $333.5 million that would allow the U.S. Air Force to replace old Sikorsky-built Pave Hawk helicopters with 112 new ones that would perform combat search-and-rescue mission.
Despite the Air Force’s call for open competition, the only bidder for the new program was Sikorsky, teamed with Lockheed Martin. The Air Force officially selected Sikorsky in late November, but it didn’t know then if it would have the money to move forward.
“The search-and-rescue money is a huge victory because it was severely threatened,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who voted for the omnibus bill along with the rest of the Connecticut congressional delegation.
The amount of federal money that will flow to Connecticut’s defense contractors this year prompted Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to call the omnibus a “home run” for the industry.
Butter and guns
Preschool children are also helped by the bill as funding for the early education program Head Start has been increased significantly. In recent years cuts to Head Start forced hundreds of Connecticut children off the program. The omnibus bill is expected to allow more children to benefit from Head Start, but David Dearborn, spokesman for the state Department of Social Services, said the full impact of Head Start’s increased funding won’t be determined until the state hears from the U.S. Department of Health and Social Services later this week.
The federal bill also increased funding for a slew of mental health programs, a move that drew praise from Sandy Hook Promise, a group formed after the Newtown tragedy.
“This is the first step in a long road, but we go forward in 2014 with hope, knowing that we have been heard, and as a result, lives may be saved,” said Nelba Marquez-Greene, the group’s director of mental health.
The Mental Health Grant Program, whose funding was boosted by $47 million to $484 million, was also directed by the omnibus bill to use 5 percent of its grants for early intervention programs for those with serious mental illness.
“Decreasing the delay between the first onset of symptoms and people receiving the help they need shows tremendous promise,” a Sandy Hook Promise statement said.
The bill also includes $200 million for the FBI to improve its background check program for gun buyers and $75 million for a new school safety program.
The bill also increases, by nearly 20 percent, subsidies that help low-income people rent housing. School lunch and the Women, Infant and Children nutrition programs also received a boost.
So did the Low Income Heating Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. But the Malloy administration is still trying to determine the effect in Connecticut of the increase in funding for LIHEAP and other federal programs run by the state.
The omnibus also contains language that postpones, at least until the end of the fiscal year, a rate increase in the Flood Insurance Program for many coastal homeowners.
University of Connecticut spokesman Tom Breen said the spending bill “puts an end to the uncertainty involved with the … sequester cuts and repeated ‘continuing resolutions’ to fund federal operations.”
He said the omnibus bill includes needed funding for the university’s research and economic development activities and shores up student loan programs.
Breen said that nearly 60 percent of last year’s across-the-board cuts to the National Institutes of Health budget were restored, which will support research at the University of Connecticut Health Center and the new Jackson Laboratory research facility.
Breen also said the omnibus protects Pell Grant funding and provides modest increases in student financial aid programs, “which is important given the estimates that demand for both will increase in 2014.”
The bill also gives the university a chance to compete for the Manufacturing Centers of Excellence program and the Department of Energy’s renewable energy technology grants, which were increased by $102 million over last year’s levels, Breen said.
Republicans insisted on cutting the budget of the Internal Revenue Service by $500 million in response to the agency’s audit of conservative nonprofits. That may mean a longer wait for a tax return this year.
Obamacare also took a hit. The IRS was denied $440 million in extra money President Obama wanted so the agency could help enforce his health care law. Americans who don’t have health insurance by March 31 face an IRS penalty.
Jason Madrak, chief marketing officer for Access Health CT, the state’s insurance exchange, predicted that the loss of enforcement money will have little impact in Connecticut.
“Here in Connecticut, most people are signing up because of the value of the coverage instead of the fear of the penalties,” he said.
Republicans also prevailed in cutting the Affordable Care Act’s Prevention and Public Health Fund by $1 billion.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s budget was also trimmed. That could affect funding for Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said agency spokesman Dennis Schain.
“We’re constantly watching the EPA budget,” he said. “A significant percentage of our money comes from the federal government, including the EPA.”
Amtrak will receive $1.4 billion — about $80 million more than last year. But there’s no money in the omnibus bill for high-speed rail — and little money to upgrade the nation’s railroad tracks.
Blumenthal called that a “major failing” of the bill.
“I consider that a loss,” he said. “But overall the state wins.”