Meals for seniors caught in latest feud over CT budget cuts

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House Minority Leader Themis Klarides and Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano (file photo)

Top Republican lawmakers again are sparring with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy about how the governor cuts spending to achieve legislatively mandated savings targets.

In the latest dispute, Republican lawmakers are balking at the governor’s plans to cut $2 million from an elderly nutrition program. Malloy must find $21.5 million in savings in the General Fund once the new fiscal year gets underway on Sunday.

The governor sent state agencies a tentative list of cuts earlier this month. A final decision on reductions will be made in the first half of July.

“The state’s senior meals program is a direct service that helps feed thousands of vulnerable seniors every day,” Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven said Friday. “I was very disappointed to see Governor Malloy target this vital service for cuts yet again, unfairly hurting elderly individuals in need of the most basic and vital assistance.”

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Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (file photo)

The legislature had budgeted about $4.6 million for the program this past fiscal year, but Malloy then cut funds by $2 million to help meet savings mandates. According to data from the Department of Aging, the reduction reduced meals in most regions served by the program from two per day to one.

Legislators again appropriated $4.6 million for the senior meals program for the new fiscal year. Malloy’s tentative $2 million cut, if applied, would maintain the program at its current $2.6 million level.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said she believes Malloy could have spared the senior meals program by instead scaling back administrative costs across agencies.

“There are other items he could have selected that make more sense and would not directly affect such a larger and vulnerable population,” she said.

But administration officials counter that things aren’t as simple as GOP lawmakers describe them.

Even though the $21.5 million savings target in the new budget is relatively small — roughly one-ninth of 1 percent of the entire General Fund — it comes on the heels of several years of more aggressive cost-cutting mandates.

Legislators ordered General Fund savings that averaged $300 million per year in Malloy’s first four-year term.

And during the first three fiscal years of Malloy’s second term, those mandates averaged $431 million per year.

After hitting those targets again and again, administration officials say there are no easy budget-cutting options left.

“We’ve seen this act before,” Chris McClure, spokesman for the governor’s budget office, said Friday. “The administration must move forward with holdbacks to begin this fiscal year because Senator Fasano and Representative Klarides were unable to identify sufficient savings to balance their budget, mandating that Governor Malloy meet yet another legislatively imposed savings target.”

Legislatures routinely build savings targets into each annual budget to cut the bottom line. The governor and the rest of the executive branch achieve these savings — dubbed “lapses” since the unspent dollars lapse back into the General Fund — by leaving positions vacant, deferring equipment and other purchases, scaling back programs and achieving other efficiencies.

But legislators also use these “lapses” for political purposes. Rather than balancing the budget by cutting a specific program or grant directly — or by raising a tax — they simply order a higher savings target.

Malloy vetoed a bill on June 1 that would have barred him from reducing municipal education grants to achieve mandated savings targets. In his veto message, the governor suggested legislators could avoid this problem simply by making specific cuts themselves.

“If the legislature wishes to provide additional stability and predictability to cities and towns in formulating their budgets, the best way to do so is to pass a state budget that identifies specific savings or additional revenue to pay for the level of assistance it wishes to provide,” Malloy wrote.

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