Asked by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to give state agency leaders the authority to cut $360.8 million, state legislators are struggling to get a sense of which programs and services gubernatorial appointees would deem “pet projects” and target for reductions or elimination.
“What I am trying to figure out when someone from a domestic violence shelter calls me and says, ‘Did I get cut? Did I not get cut?’ I have to say I don’t know. Cause I can’t figure it out,” Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, the House chairwoman of the legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, told the commissioner of the Department of Social Services last week.
“What is not going to happen that has happened before?” Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, asked the commissioner of the state’s child welfare agency.
And while agency leaders have given legislators on the Appropriations Committee a series of buzzwords over the past two weeks to explain how millions of dollars could be saved, they have offered few, if any, specifics. Some said they hadn’t determined where the cuts would be made or asked legislators to trust them to make the right calls.
Education Commissioner Dianna R. Wentzell on Tuesday explained to the budget-writing committee that her agency will be “more efficient,” and only “essential services” would be funded.
“In all honesty, we don’t know,” said Joette Katz, the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families. “It’s really about trust. It’s about you trusting me.”
But agency leaders last fall did provide a glimpse into where they might turn. Each year as the governor’s budget office prepares a budget for the General Assembly to consider, the administration asks each commissioner to recommend places to cut spending.
Their reluctant recommendations ranged from closing a detox unit at Connecticut Valley Hospital to cutting money for school-based health centers to reducing staff at the watchdog agencies whose job is to ensure government integrity and accountability.
Here are some highlights culled from recommendations agencies put forward in October for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
- The State Department of Education recommended eliminating funding for a mentoring program for children in New Haven. The agency also would have eliminated funding for Bridges to Success, a program that provides tutors to help high-need students prepare for college placement exams.
- The Office of Higher Education recommended awarding $2.2 million less in grants to college students through the Governors’ Scholarship program.
- A program that helps screen for dementia and provides services to help clients maintain cognitive function would stop taking new patients under a State Department on Aging recommendation.
- Therapy and other community services for abused and neglected children in the foster care system would be cut by $1 million under a recommendation from the Department of Children and Families.
- The Office of Government Accountability, which includes watchdog agencies such as the state Office of State Ethics, the State Elections Enforcement Commission and the Freedom of Information Commission, would cut staff.
- Services for homeless people would be cut by $3.9 million under a Department of Housing recommendation.
- The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services recommended saving $11.9 million by closing the 20-bed detox unit at the state-run Connecticut Valley Hospital and cutting planned growth in the number of people who could be served by a number of programs, including housing supports, programs for young adults and people with traumatic brain injury.
- The Department of Public Health recommended cutting $381,911 for local health departments and districts, nearly $400,000 from school-based health centers, and smaller cuts to various public health programs. But department officials also warned that those cuts would have consequences, noting that the reductions could, among other things, reduce services for pregnant teens at risk of using drugs, alcohol or tobacco; reduce children’s access to primary care, mental health and dental care at school-based health centers; increase rates of lead poisoning in children; and impact public health services at local health departments.
Many of the agency leaders identified much less in cuts than the govneror’s budget director had requested.
“I have determined that the Department of Agriculture cannot responsibly submit a reduction option equaling 5 percent,” Commissioner Steven Reviczky wrote the budget director Oct. 8. “I believe that any further cuts would impair the agency’s ability to meet its federal and state statutory and regulatory responsibility… Further reductions to the General Fund could inhibit the sale of certain agriculture and aquaculture commodities in the state.”
Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon wrote in October that, while her recommendations fell below the 5 percent the administration sought, her agency had tried to find savings that could be realistically achieved “and still provide the safety net necessary to the people we serve.”
The governor is now proposing that agency leaders cut their budgets beyond what they were asked to identify in savings last fall. The administration has promised to provide legislators and the public with a list of existing services in a prioritized format early next month.
This year’s budget debate involves not just how to close a projected $570 million deficit but who will have the authority to determine what gets cut. While agencies have traditionally had many separate line items with specific dollar amounts, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed consolidating most into catch-all line items in each department, called “agency operations.” Nearly all agency heads would then be charged with cutting 5.75 percent from that line, adding up to $360.8 million.
Malloy says this approach will take the pork out of state spending and direct funding to the state’s “core services.”
“You’ve written the rules in such a way that you get to protect everybody’s favorite thing,” the Democratic governor said on a WTIC morning radio show the day after releasing his budget proposal. “Somebody’s pet project is not a core service… People will say, ‘Well, we got to buy so and so’s budget vote. Or we got to buy this person’s vote this way.’ We have got to fundamentally change that system.”
The table below shows potential cuts agencies submitted in the fall of 2014 and 2015 for the present and upcoming fiscal years respectively.
Information on a handful of agencies was not available. The largest were the Department of Social Services and the office of Early Childhood.