House tells governor to save money without cutting school aid

Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford

The House of Representatives adopted a measure Wednesday that would prohibit the governor from reducing education grants to school districts next fiscal year after the budget is in force.

The House voted 117-32 to adopt the bill, which now heads to the Senate.

The measure is a reaction to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s decision in mid-November to reduce municipal grants by $91 million — including $58 million from the Education Cost Sharing program — to achieve savings targets mandated by the legislature.

“This bill protects school districts from the devastating, unacceptable education cuts that the Malloy administration made in the middle of the last fiscal year,” Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, House chair of the Education Committee, said Wednesday. “Those cuts did not reflect the approach or values embodied in the ECS formula, and I’m proud of the overwhelming, bipartisan support this bill received.”

Lawmakers, who excluded the Malloy administration from the negotiations that produced a new, two-year state budget last October, directed the governor to achieve unprecedented savings after the budget was in force.

The governor had to achieve six different savings targets worth a total of $880 million this fiscal year. And some of those targets came with very limited direction from the legislature.

For example, one directive involved saving $8.5 million by reducing education grants.

Keith M. Phaneuf FILE PHOTO / CTMirror.org

Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden

A second directive, titled “targeted savings” with a goal of $112 million attached, was not as clear. The governor reduced “other expense” accounts, used to cover miscellaneous expenses in most state agencies, by 5 percent, trimmed another 2 percent from human service accounts, and reduced other municipal grants, including ECS by an additional 2.5 percent.

Malloy’s education grant cuts were weighted more heavily on wealthier school districts than on poorer ones.

When the smoke cleared, ECS payments were down a total of $58 million and some legislators argued the governor had overstepped his bounds.

Lawmakers from both parties countered that Malloy should have found the savings by consolidating agency functions and reducing overtime. But Malloy also had to hit a huge, $700 million savings target tied to a union concessions deal and traditionally all labor cost-cutting moves — including overtime reductions and consolidations — are put toward that target.

The preliminary budget for 2018-19 increases the “targeted savings” directive from $112 million to $151 million.

But some House members, like Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden, cast dissenting votes. If education aid is going to be cut in tough times, she said, “I believe we need to have the flexibility to reduce grants to the wealthy towns.”

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