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Budget Plan Would Close Some Parks And Courts, Legalize Keno


May 29, 2009

Gov. M. Jodi Rell offered a supplemental budget Thursday that would cut $1.3 billion in spending over two years, close some courthouses and state parks, consolidate agencies and legalize Keno gambling to balance the state's two-year budget.

The new budget would require no new taxes or cuts in education aid for municipalities and would reduce spending by 1.4 percent below the level for the current fiscal year.

The Keno games, which would be run by the state's lottery corporation, would generate an estimated $60 million per year in new state revenue if Connecticut joins neighboring New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island in legalizing the electronic gambling game.

Rell's budget proposes closing courthouses in Manchester, Norwalk, Putnam and Derby. Those would be in addition to her earlier call to close courthouses in Meriden and Bristol.

The supplemental budget represents additional cuts beyond the ones that Rell offered in February, and is designed to combat a plan by Democratic legislators to raise taxes by more than $3 billion over two years.

In contrast, Rell says her budget requires no new taxes or tax increases, particularly in the state income tax. If the state can avoid tax increases, it will have a competitive advantage when the recession ends, she said.

"The top income tax in New York and New Jersey is nearly 9 percent, and Rhode Island's is just under 10 percent, while Connecticut's top rate is still 5 percent," Rell said. "If we hold the line on taxes and make the tough decisions now, we will make our state infinitely more affordable for business and infinitely more appealing for investment."

Democrats expressed immediate skepticism, saying they believe that the state would still have a budget deficit even with the additional cuts.

Rep. John Geragosian, a New Britain Democrat who co-chairs the legislature's budget-writing committee, said he felt blind-sided by the cuts because he had been negotiating with the governor's office. The negotiations ended unexpectedly Wednesday after Rell objected to a Democratic amendment on how the state's budget deficit is projected.

"We're not going to make irresponsible cuts on the backs of the poorest in Connecticut" without also asking for tax increases on the wealthiest, Geragosian said.

Rell intends to save $1 million per year by eliminating 200 summer jobs in state parks. However, the state's biggest shoreline parks — like Hammonasset in Madison and Sherwood Island in Westport — will remain open. Even without staffing, some state parks will remain open if lifeguards are not necessary. Putnam Park in Redding, for example, will remain open even without staffing, and any closings would be on a case-by-case basis.

"Many inland state parks will be closed and gated with minimum maintenance performed," the budget summary said. "Park naturalist and environmental education programs for inland parks will be suspended. Six inland freshwater, state-operated boat launches will be closed with the closure of associated state parks."

Among the cuts, Rell is reducing Medicaid rates for nursing homes by 1 percent. She will also reduce payments to other Medicaid providers by the same 1 percent as of the new fiscal year on July 1.

After scrutinizing the budget for months, Geragosian said many of the cuts are simply not acceptable.

"Respectfully, I've spent about 100 times more on the governor's budget than she has," Geragosian said. "It's almost June 1, and now we're hearing about Keno. It doesn't sound like a real solution."

House Speaker Christopher Donovan said his "first blush" reaction was that Rell's proposals "really tend to hurt those who are hurt most in our recession. If you're looking at those who are affected by the recession — those who are looking for jobs, those who are looking to get new skills, those who are losing health care — you are affected adversely by her proposals. ... We're disappointed in that, and we certainly see our role as fighting to protect the citizens of our state from some of these devastating cuts."

"We're going to keep working," Donovan said. "We would like to have a budget done by next week," when the legislative session is scheduled to end. "But, given the fact that we just got these today, it's going to make it hard."

Donovan said Rell's proposals highlight "the difference between the Democrats and Republicans. ... The Democratic proposal largely looked at those with higher incomes in order to reach some of the gaps in the budget, plus we had some cuts that were out there, as well. The governor has left those upper-income people in the state unscathed. ... Those on the lower end are taking a big hit."

Geragosian said Rell "can't get off saying she has a no-tax budget" with her proposal, because she wants "hundreds of millions of dollars in [increased] fees. ... If you ride a bus in this state ... if you ride a train in this state, she's raising your taxes."

Nonprofit agencies were not pleased with the cuts.

"The latest budget proposal from Gov. Rell would do severe damage to community providers and constituents who require provider services," said Terry Edelstein, CEO of an association of nonprofits. "It starts by cutting annual funding by 1 percent in each of the next two years. These cuts will have a direct impact on the ability of providers to deliver services to people with mental illness, developmental disabilities and substance-use disorders."

•Courant senior information specialist Cristina Bachetti contributed to this report.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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