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When Connecticut’s Budget Realities Follow Tragedies

State legislators sprang into action after the Newtown tragedy, allocating nearly $19 million for an array of initiatives on school safety, mental health and gun control.

For the third time in six years lawmakers spoke decisively – and in bipartisan fashion – about crucial reforms made in response to tragedy.

But with a sluggish recovery and a significant budget deficit looming after the 2014 elections, will those Newtown initiatives survive?

If they follow the track record of legislative responses to tragedies in 2007 and 2010, some of these reforms will fall by the wayside.

“For many legislators, the problem is solved when the bill is passed,” former state Rep. Michael Lawlor (D-East Haven) said. “But just changing the law doesn’t really solve things. You have to stay on top of the topic.”

Lawlor, who is Gov Dannel P. Malloy’s criminal justice policy adviser, co-chaired the legislature’s Judiciary Committee in September 2007 when Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters were slain in their homes in Cheshire. The two men convicted in the case also had sexually assaulted Hawke-Petit and one of the daughters.

Lawmakers came into special session in January 2008 and enacted several initiatives: a new crime of “home invasion”; increased sentences for violent and persistent offenders; a new, professional, full-time parole board armed with a new, state-of-the-art computer network that would allow all law enforcement agencies to share offender information; an end to an abbreviated process on reviewing parole cases; and 270 new beds for criminal offenders being rehabilitated in a community setting.

The annual cost was $17 million.

And before the regular 2008 legislative session ended in May, lawmakers had doubled and tripled maximum sentences for certain felonies and authorized another $10 million for police, GPS tracking, and addiction treatment and alternative housing for offenders.

But Connecticut’s economy already had begun tumbling into recession and Gov M. Jodi Rell’s administration – which was responsible for developing half of the 270 new offender beds – stalled.

Both Rell and the legislature trimmed funding for the Judicial Branch almost immediately after the new initiatives had been enacted.

The Judicial Branch’s budget, which had shot up 6 percent, from $456 million to $483 million, in 2009, became trapped in a game of fiscal bait-and-switch.

Lawmakers approved a nearly $500 million budget for 2010, but by the time the year ended it had been whittled down to $465 million – four percent below the funding level in the first year of post-Cheshire initiatives.

“The plain fact is that there is not enough money remaining to institute new programs or expand existing ones,” Judge Barbara M. Quinn, the chief court administration, testified before legislators in January 2010, referring to the impact of cuts on all judicial services.

“It is disheartening and frustrating to see an ever-widening chasm between the programmatic responsibilities and mandates given to the Judicial Branch by the legislature and the funds that are ultimately available to meet those critical and central duties.”

Bill Carbone, who was executive director of the Court Support Services Division, also warned legislators at the same time that budget cuts were having an effect.

The branch was responsible for opening another 135 beds that would have served about 400 people a year in the community. But Carbone noted that only 75 had been opened to date “due to various budget constraints.”

Despite these warnings, the pattern repeated in 2011. A preliminary budget of $512 million was scaled back to $496 million.  And by the 2012, as Gov Malloy began tackling the huge, $3.7 billion deficit Rell left behind, the Judicial Branch budget fell to $482 million.

Three years into the post-Cheshire reforms, funding has been whittled back to the same level as in Year One.

“That’s the part of the appropriations process that is so delicate, and people don’t always understand that,” said Rep. Toni Walker (D-New Haven), House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.

Generally there is broad support for some response to great tragedies, she said. But there also is heavy pressure in tough fiscal times to cut as much as possible to avoid tax hikes.

 

Are Newtown Response Funds Safe?

So what does that mean for the nearly $19 million in new spending this year ordered in response to the shooting in Newtown?

While legislators interviewed said the tragedy remains fresh in their minds, so are new reports showing sizeable deficits looming after next fall’s state elections.

In fact, the Malloy administration said the $1.1 billion post-election shortfall projected by legislative analysts could be trimmed to $600 million – primarily by not granting inflationary increases to agency budgets.

And though the administration’s report only offers one way of estimating the deficit – and does not recommend cuts to any specific program - it demonstrates another challenge facing crisis-response efforts: Legislators receive an initial estimate of a new program’s cost, but budget analysts don’t track and report on each element year after year.

Once a response plan has been adopted, Harp said, the components can easily slip out of legislators’ sights.

Keeping the response to Newtown fresh in lawmakers’ minds is one key, said Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney (R-Fairfield), whose district includes the town.

 “I don’t think we’ll see any trimming back,” he said, predicting officials could “even put more money in as needed.”

Funding for mental health initiatives traditionally hasn’t enjoyed as much support as that for other health programs, and often tend to be more expensive.

But McKinney also was optimistic those funds would be preserved in the future, given that several study panels are due to report on the problem over the next year.

“We’ve made steps with mental health,” he said, “but we know there is more that will be necessary.”

(This story originally appeared at CTMirror.org, the website of The Connecticut Mirror, an independent, nonprofit news organization covering government, politics, and public policy in the state.)

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