Budget crunch, jobs, hearings and a heroic health-care worker

Fiscal matters continue to be the focus of the state legislature as it tries to craft a budget that will address a two-year deficit in the $3 billion dollar range. But it’s possible that, in a switch from usual practice, more of the budget deliberations might be conducted this year in private.

Final budget negotiations between the legislature and governor are customarily held in private late in the session, but only after much public discussion of each party’s proposals.

This year, leaders of the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate acknowledged that potential partisan gridlock could drive routine negotiations behind closed doors.

Republican gains in the last election turned a 21-15 Democratic advantage in the Senate into an 18-18 tie, and an 87-64 Democratic lead in the House into a slim 78-71 margin.

More important are tight party margins in the key appropriations and finance committees.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders on the Finance Committee say they expect an increase in Connecticut’s sales tax probably will be necessary to balance the books for the next two fiscal years.

Even if talks between Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and labor unions produce the concessions the governor is seeking, there is strong bipartisan opposition in the legislature to Malloy proposals to shift teacher pension costs onto towns and to eliminate the $200 property tax credit within the state income tax system.

Rejecting these two proposals alone would punch more than $500 million in holes into each year of Malloy’s two-year budget plan — a gap that Finance Committee Democratic leaders say would be difficult to close without more tax revenue.

Despite the private negotiations on the final budget, most legislative issues are aired at public hearings anyone can attend.

Many legislators dread the hearings, which can be tedious at times, but many also understand that it’s important to hear the concerns of their constituents.

ctmirror.org

Dr. Deepak D’Souza and Rep. William Petit field questions about marijuana during a public hearing.

A case in point was last week’s hearing before the Judiciary Committee on Senate Bill 11, An Act Concerning the Legalization and Taxation of the Retail Sale of Marijuana. Bill McDonald, a cancer patient, offered wrenching testimony about his quest to treat his disease.

Cost controls and layoff concerns

Ongoing efforts to reduce the state’s expenses have brought varied reactions from both officials and workers.

Last Monday, State Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo renewed his push to require an independent analysis of the hundreds of millions of dollars in economic incentives Connecticut provides annually to businesses.

A bill based on that proposal won legislative approval last year only to be vetoed by Malloy. Even so, the leader of a key legislative committee said he expects his panel to endorse a similar measure this year.

Malloy has taken a more direct approach to cost control: staff reductions. He has threatened to lay off 4,200 union workers unless concessions are granted.

The state’s largest health-care worker union, 1199 New England SEIU, is not taking the threat lightly and last week launched a 30-second TV ad supporting its cause.

Against a backdrop of health-care employees helping patients, a narrator says: “It’s state workers that make these buildings homes for the disabled, a safe haven for children, recovery centers in an opioid crisis, because state workers have dedicated their lives to a simple yet powerful philosophy: to help others.”

Amid such discussions, the state issued its monthly job report on Thursday showing that unemployment in Connecticut had crept up from 4.5 percent in January to 4.7 percent in Februrary.

The state reported a net loss of 1,600 jobs.

Federal job training

The federal budget also is being debated, this year in the framework of President Trump’s request for a huge increase in military spending and vast cuts in most other departments.

At a confirmation hearing Wednesday, Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, urged Trump’s choice for labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, to restore funding for training workers in manufacturing skills.

Such training has brought hard-to-find skilled workers to Connecticut’s Electric Boat submarine shipyard. Trump’s spending proposal would cut the Labor Department’s training budget by 35 percent.

Bail reform

In an appearance before a legislative committee on Monday, Malloy asked legislators to support bail reforms he says would minimize the number of defendants jailed before trial because of their inability to afford bail.

“As we sit here today, hundreds of Connecticut residents are locked up, not because they are a dangerous threat, but because they are poor,” Malloy said. “No one should be sitting behind bars simply because they are poor.”

While several legislators expressed support for the governor’s proposal, or some form of it, the notion has been opposed by the bail bonds industry.

Seeking stability for Millstone

On Tuesday, the state’s Energy and Technology Committee voted 17-7 to send a bill to the House floor that sponsors say would simultaneously lower electric rates and stabilize profits generated by the Millstone Nuclear Power Station.

Opponents, however, say the bill would cost ratepayers and produce a windfall for the plant’s owner, Dominion Resources of Virginia.

Dominion Resources

The Millstone nuclear power station.

Bringing health care close to home 

Congress has been engaging in heated partisan debate about replacing Obamacare since the November election. Often lost among the partisan rancor is the realization that, on a local level, there are health-care workers making heroic efforts simply to help people as best they can.

Theanvy Kuoch, for instance, arrived in the state in 1981, a battered survivor of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. The very next year, she and three American nurses who had worked in Cambodian refugee camps began Khmer Health Advocates in West Hartford to help newly arriving refugees. Kuoch later became a licensed professional counselor and is Khmer Health Advocates’ executive director. She talked about her work with refugees with the Mirror’s Arielle Levin Becker.

Another health-care worker, Nadia Lugo, is working to bring community health-care workers to Hartford neighborhoods. She works for Community Solutions, which collaborates with hospitals and other health organizations.

The organization, among others, is attempting to replace a precarious system of funding with a more sustainable way to pay for community health workers and to better incorporate that role into health care.

Community Solutions is about to start a pilot program in which certified nursing assistants who provide home health care receive additional training in topics such as connecting people to resources and identifying non-medical factors that could influence their health.

There are several other ongoing efforts in Connecticut to make better use of community health-care workers, which are seen as an important way to reduce costs and bring better care to underserved communities.

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