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JUNE 28, 2017

While lawmakers are locked in a budgetary logjam at the Capitol, Heather Gates is struggling to figure out which programs for the mentally ill she may be forced to cut.

The agency she runs, Community Health Resources, could lose $2 million in grant money from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. The cut is part of an enormous wave of spending reductions that would hit on Saturday if Connecticut enters the new fiscal year without a budget.

“It will be devastating,” predicted Gates, the agency’s president and CEO. Community Health Resources is a large behavioral health provider, serving more 22,000 children, families and adults and employing about 800 people. “We’re here to serve the most vulnerable and most needy and there’s no wiggle room.”

With lawmakers unable to agree on a new two-year state budget and unlikely to adopt a temporary “mini-budget” budget that would cover the state until Oct. 1, it appears likely that the state’s finances will be run by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy through an executive order when the new fiscal year starts.

With neither a complete nor a provisional budget in place, the Malloy administration outlined a series of cuts, including a $4.5 million reduction to the rental assistance program, no state money for the honor guards for veterans funerals and an end of supplemental payments under the small hospital pool.

“Everybody knows that the mini-budget would be better than the executive order,” Malloy said. “I would rather see action than inaction.”

Under an executive order, Malloy cannot raise revenue, shift funds around or adopt other cost-saving strategies. His main tool to balance the budget is a pair of scissors.

Human service agencies that contract with the state to provide services to the mentally ill, the homeless, the elderly and the drug-addicted are poised to make difficult decisions based reductions in state grants that range from 5 to 10 percent. “You’re dealing people who are fragile and when you disrupt their regular routine it will have consequences for their stability,” said Barry Simon, president and CEO of Oak Hill, which runs group homes for developmentally disabled adults and children, mental health group homes, in-home support programs and community case management services.

A 5 to 10 percent funding cut would create chaos for Oak Hill’s clients and employees, Simon said. “I can’t reduce my staff because I’ll lose my license,” he said. “I can’t say I’ll run the group homes 20 out of 24 hours each day.”

Gates said her agency will put all major decisions on hold. “You can’t make decisions about hiring, you can’t make decisions about moving forward,” she said. “We’re trying to deal with an opioid epidemic. When you’re not sure if 10 percent of your funding is going to be removed, it’s very hard to go forward with new initiatives.”

Claudio Gualtieri, associate state director for advocacy and outreach for AARP Connecticut, said an executive order is a blunt budgeting tool. “The levers that the governor has to use unilaterally are not as nuanced as the human realities on the ground,” he said.

Gualtieri said he is especially concerned about an approximately $7 million cut to the Connecticut Home Care Program for Elders, which provides elderly residents with the support services to avoid nursing home care. The funding reduction means no new seniors will be accepted into the program. “This cut is roughly $5 million greater than the proposed cuts in the governor’s revised budget and far worse than the legislative budget proposals on the table at the end of the regular session,” he said.

Some human service providers directed their frustration at lawmakers for their inability to reach consensus on how to break the fiscal gridlock. “It is beyond disappointing that the General Assembly apparently will not meet on Thursday to adopt even a short-term budget when the lives and health of tens of thousands of Connecticut residents are at risk,” said Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of CT Community Nonprofit Alliance.

Added Simon: “I wish our legislative leaders would understand the impact of their inability to behave in a bipartisan manner … By their inaction and unwillingness to pass a budget, they are doing harm.”

Credit: Daniela Altimari, Reporter for the Courant

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