A legislator stands at a lectern with several other legislators and advocates behind her.
Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, held a press conference with leaders from the CT Alliance of Nonprofits at the Legislative Office Building on January 19, 2023, calling on the governor to raise funding for the state's nonprofit organizations. Erica E. Phillips / CT Mirror

Connecticut’s nonprofit social safety net needs nearly $500 million over the next two years to recover from 15 years of underfunding, legislators and nonprofit leaders say.

Nongovernmental, not-for-profit service providers — from substance abuse and mental health treatment programs to transitional support for formerly incarcerated people, assistance for adults with disabilities and shelters for unhoused people and survivors of domestic violence — called on state leaders Thursday to increase public funding by 9% in the coming fiscal year and 7% in the year after that, adding $482 million to the state’s biennial budget.

“We are fully committed to moving forward as we promised last year to finally provide the resources for the nonprofits,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who convened Thursday’s press conference on behalf of the CT Community Nonprofit Alliance.

For a decade, from 2007 to 2017, state funding for nonprofits and nonprofit workers remained flat. According to the Alliance, budget increases in the years since then haven’t made up for the shortfall — particularly as the pandemic both exacerbated demand for services while also making it harder to retain staff, leading to financial troubles for many organizations.

“It’s time to provide the sector with what’s necessary to maintain and expand services on which [many] people depend,” said Gian Carl Casa, the Alliance’s president and chief executive.

Osten, who leads the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, has co-sponsored four bills before the legislature this session to boost public financial support.

“We have been totally clear that we expect that the nonprofits will be brought up to the level where they need to be,” Osten said. “This is not a new conversation.”

What is new this year is how much money the state has to spend. Projections for state tax receipts have ticked upward, and surging income, sales and corporation tax receipts will give Gov. Ned Lamont roughly $600 million in additional revenue to work into his budget.

But the governor has said repeatedly that he wants to preserve “guardrails” on spending.

“My message to the legislature is we’ve got to maintain that fiscal discipline,” Lamont told members of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association at a gathering Thursday morning. “For the first time in decades, our fixed costs are not going up as fast as our revenues, and that’s a big thing.”

Too much discipline could lead to other, more painful costs, nonprofit advocates say.

The Alliance estimates Connecticut’s nonprofits employ 115,000 people, or roughly 7% of the statewide workforce. But many of those workers earn so little that they rely on social services like food stamps, heating assistance and state-sponsored HUSKY health insurance, Osten said.

That makes it difficult to retain staff when many could make more money elsewhere, said Luis Perez, board chair of the Alliance and president of Mental Health Connecticut. “How can we assure that we can meet our mission when we are unable to fill positions?” he said. “Our work is about relationship building. So every time that we lose an individual that has a relationship with one of our program participants, that work starts all over again.”

According to a recent survey, half of the Alliance’s nonprofit member organizations have had to establish or increase waiting lists for their services, Perez said.

Tracey Walker of Journey Found, a Manchester-based service provider for adults with intellectual disabilities, said the combined effects of the pandemic, a worsening staff shortage and high inflation forced the organization to turn away dozens of new clients and close two of its programs last year. Fulfilling her organization’s mission “has become harder and harder and harder, particularly over these last three years,” Walker said.

“If not now, when?” Casa said. “When will people who rely on nonprofits see the level of program funding that they were seeing in 2007?”

Erica covers economic development for CT Mirror. Before moving to Connecticut to join the staff she worked in Los Angeles for public radio’s Marketplace and, before that, for the Wall Street Journal's L.A. bureau. She grew up in Minneapolis, MN, graduated from Haverford College and earned a master’s in journalism from the University of Southern California.