The 2024 Connecticut General Assembly listens to Gov. Ned Lamont’s State of the State address. SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR

Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year invests in early childhood development, mental health care, outreach to the homeless and prison staffing. But the plan falls far short of what social service advocates say is necessary to reverse years of financial neglect.

As service providers and advocates pressed for weeks for more funding, administration officials warned the next budget would be lean, but efforts would be made to bolster core programs.

“We have some additional targeted investments to strengthen the safety net,” Office of Policy and Management Secretary Jeffrey Beckham, Lamont’s budget director, said Wednesday.

“Our budget is doing more. How can we do a better job directing our resources to make a difference in people’s lives, turning hopelessness into hope, hardship into opportunity?” Lamont said during his afternoon State of the State address.

But social service advocates say state budget controls have become increasingly restrictive, even though surpluses have achieved record highs in recent years.

Legislators adopted a revised, more stringent spending cap in 2017, and complemented it with a new borrowing cap and two other savings programs. They’re commonly referred to as the state’s “fiscal guardrails,” and they’ve played an important role in accumulating billions of dollars in surpluses that have reduced state debt. Lamont, who took office in 2019, has become one of the most vocal supporters of this system.

“We’re grateful that the Governor’s budget recognizes the importance of quality child care, affordable housing, and public education,” said Emily Byrne, executive director of Connecticut Voices for Children. “However, we can’t forget that the state increases pale in comparison to what families are facing now, which is the largest three-year cost of living increase since the 1980s.”

The budget also didn’t include the $20 million that homeless service providers have asked for or for a new child tax credit within the state income tax system. Connecticut Voices has estimated that a tax credit worth $500 to $600 per child would help more than 80,000 children living in poverty while costing the state roughly $300 million per year.

“As Connecticut families continue to struggle to meet their basic needs, a CT Child Tax Credit would provide immediate and flexible dollars,” Byrne said. “What’s more, this increased financial support for low- and middle-income families with children will then help grow Connecticut’s economy.”

Child care

The budget proposal includes an additional $43.3 million from the state’s general fund and American Rescue Plan Act dollars for child care.

Research shows that the child care industry has continued to decline in Connecticut, leaving fewer slots available for young children. Quality early child care has been tied to better educational outcomes and brain development

Child care in the United States is one of many families’ top expenses. The cost can mean that parents — disproportionately mothers — stay home to take care of children and aren’t able to participate in the labor market.

“Our budget provides the biggest commitment to child care in our history,” Lamont said. Some of the investments, he added, come from recommendations from his Blue Ribbon Panel on Childcare.

The cost to develop the five-year plan from the Blue Ribbon Panel is about $2 billion.

The governor’s plan includes an additional $12.9 million for Care4Kids, a state-funded program that helps families with low incomes pay for child care. Lamont also proposed allowing more families to participate by increasing income eligibility from 60% of the state’s median income to 65%.

It also proposes a little over $1 million to continue funding for the Smart Start pre-K program that was initially paid for with COVID relief money and establishing Sparkler, a mobile developmental screening tool for parents of children birth to three, among other program funding.

Lamont has also proposed eliminating fees for licensed child care homes to make it easier for Connecticut residents to offer child care.

Mental health

Lamont also proposed adding $8.8 million to bolster the state’s mental health care system for kids. The pandemic highlighted many issues in the system, and kids and parents have reported heightened mental health issues and struggles accessing care since COVID-19.

In response, the state legislature passed sweeping bills focused on children’s mental health in 2021. This included the formation of four urgent crisis centers across the state. They offer care for kids in crisis and aim to help keep them out of the hospital.

Lamont’s proposed budget would give an additional $8.3 million to the crisis centers, including some ARPA money. The centers were originally funded with ARPA money and advocates worried that the project wouldn’t be sustainable.

“The additional year of ARPA funding for DCF will provide the time necessary to address permanent sustainability for these critical new services,” the governor’s budget says.

Homelessness

Lamont’s budget proposal includes $2.9 million to the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to address chronic homelessness for people with mental illness or addictions.

It also would add $1.2 million and 12 positions to conduct outreach to people living outside or in places not meant for human habitation. Other supports include 15 new housing vouchers to help adults with autism cover their rent expenses and $400,000 to help people apply for disability.

“One warning sign: we have too many people who cannot find a place to live — it is not available, or it is not affordable,” Lamont said. “Our biennial budget doubles our investment in housing — workforce housing, affordable housing, supportive housing, elder housing and downtown apartments.”

It’s a far cry from the $20 million providers requested to raise salaries for staff and annualize cold weather funding, among other funding needs. Earlier this week, advocates gathered with more than a dozen lawmakers from both parties to call for $20 million to homelessness services.

“They obviously want more than that,” Beckham said. “If the General Assembly has a different view on that and has a different number, we’ll obviously have to talk to them about that in April.”

The number of people experiencing homelessness has been on the rise in Connecticut for the past couple of years. More people are living outside, and people are staying in shelters longer. This has put strain on Connecticut’s homeless response system, providers say.

Planning and Development Committee co-chair Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, D-Avon, plans to introduce a bill to add $20 million to the response system, she said.

“I think it’s important that we focus on the fact that we have a crisis at hand, and we need to address it sooner than later,” Kavros DeGraw said.

Last session, the legislature approved a bonding package that included nearly a billion dollars for housing-related projects.

The budget proposal includes $2 million more in ARPA money to the state’s right to counsel program, which offers free legal aid to people facing eviction. Eviction can have wide-ranging effects on families’ physical and mental health, finances, access to education, and access to transportation, among other outcomes.

The program was initially funded with $20 million in COVID relief money and was expected to run out this year.

ARPA money needs to be spent by the end of the year or returned to the federal government, Beckham said. Lamont’s administration is proposing a method of giving unspent money to the Office of Policy and Management to spend money more quickly at the end of the year.

He said some of that might be used on housing, homelessness and other services.

Prisons

The governor allocated $2.5 million to the Department of Correction for increased staffing to address growing assaults on officers and incarcerated people.

In recent months, advocates, people in prison and correctional officers have expressed frustrations about inadequate training for officers interacting with prisoners and a lack of rehabilitation programming for incarcerated people, though Lamont’s budget does not appear to directly address their concerns.

The budget also lacks additional funding for the Office of the Correction Ombuds, which will serve as the independent overseer of the Department of Correction in the Office of Governmental Accountability.

The Correction Advisory Committee, the panel helping choose the ombudsperson, had raised concerns that the funding allocated ($800,000 over FY24 and FY25) wasn’t sufficient to provide the ombudsperson, whose appointment is expected in the coming days, with the staffing and resources needed.

Lamont did propose an additional $5 million for “renovations and improvements” to Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire. During a budget presentation, Beckham said the money was intended to address problems with residential cottages at the facility. Though Rep. Toni Walker, the chair of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee, told the CT Mirror that the funds could be used differently.

For instance, there are ongoing conversations about a $67 million proposal from the Judicial Branch to renovate and reopen the site formerly known as the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, a heavily scrutinized prison-like facility for children. The proposal estimated that studies of the renovation ​​could last roughly 18 to 24 months and cost up to $1 million.

Beckham said the proposal is “something we’re talking about right now.”

Nonprofits

The hundreds of community-based nonprofits that deliver the bulk of state-sponsored social services did not get the $186 million increase they asked for in the governor’s budget.

The CT Community Nonprofit Alliance estimates that the industry loses about $480 million annually because state payments haven’t fully kept pace with inflation since 2007.

Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the alliance, and other nonprofit leaders asked the governor and legislators in late January to consider closing nearly 40% of the problem in the next budget.

Connecticut already spends roughly $2.1 billion hiring nonprofits to treat people with disabilities, mental health or substance abuse issues, and to help incarcerated individuals transition back into the community. Funding has increased by about 13.5% over the past five years.

But nonprofits say much of that funding either was restricted to agencies serving clients with intellectual disabilities, had to be used only to improve wages and benefits for workers, or both.

“It’s disappointing that community nonprofits who provide vital services to some of the most vulnerable citizens are not getting a funding increase they desperately need in the governor’s budget proposal,” Casa said. “After nearly two decades of underfunding that have left nonprofit buying power 32% behind, the proposed flat funding in the governor’s budget is an effective budget cut.”

According to a survey conducted by the alliance, 55% of nonprofits statewide say they maintain a waiting list for services. They have called for increased investments in existing disability services statewide as well as a reduction of the existing waiting list.

“We have the money. The people employed by nonprofits, the people served by nonprofits and the families of both deserve to have their work and needs recognized in this budget,” Casa added.

Nonprofit leaders say limited growth in state funds already has forced many agencies to cap or reduce program slots as they struggle with annual employee turnover rates approaching 20%.

Casa, like advocates for education and for health care programs, says state government can afford both to better fund core services and still achieve healthy budget surpluses that can be used to pay down long-term debt.

With more than $80 billion in unfunded pension and retiree health care benefits and bonded debt combined, Connecticut is one of the most indebted states, on a per capita basis, in the nation.

“We understand the importance of saving and paying off debt,” Casa said. “But the choice between properly funding programs and paying debt is a false one. A family that finds its finances have improved would not put off putting food on the table to pay debt. They would do both.”

Ginny is CT Mirror’s children’s issues and housing reporter and a Report for America corps member. She covers a variety of topics ranging from child welfare to affordable housing and zoning. Ginny grew up in Arkansas and graduated from the University of Arkansas’ Lemke School of Journalism in 2017. She began her career at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette where she covered housing, homelessness, and juvenile justice on the investigations team. Along the way Ginny was awarded a 2019 Data Fellowship through the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. She moved to Connecticut in 2021.

Jaden is CT Mirror’s justice reporter. He was previously a summer reporting fellow at The Texas Tribune and interned at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. He received a bachelor’s degree in electronic media from Texas State University and a master’s degree in investigative journalism from the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

Joining as a legislative reporting intern for the 2024 session, Luke is a senior at the University of Connecticut. Luke is currently studying political science and journalism and expects to graduate in June. At UConn he is currently a columnist for their student-run newspaper, The Daily Campus. In his weekly column he explores politics, international relations and current events. In addition he is a member of the Daily Campus Editorial Board.