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Shootings haunt special session

Updated 11:02 pm, Wednesday, December 19, 2012
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HARTFORD -- Members of the General Assembly shed tears over the dead in Newtown on Wednesday, then swallowed hard and approved the final pieces of $365 million in adjustments to the current $20 billion budget.

The $221.5 in cuts and $30.8 million in new revenue was approved in the House 140-3 at about 8 p.m., after a half-hour debate and no comment from rank-and-file lawmakers. The Senate took up the bill at 8:20, and about two hours later approved it 31-3.

The $252.3 million will be combined with $113 million in unilateral reductions ordered last month by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, said that the emotional stress in the aftermath of the school massacre brought Republican and Democratic lawmakers together for a late-breaking compromise last week.

"It was the spirit of Sandy Hook that was in that room," Cafero said, recalling that before news of the shootings emerged last Friday, budget negotiators were deadlocked.

"There was a sense of trust," said Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden. "I hope and expect that level of trust will always be there and continue into the next session."

There's an estimated $1.2 billion deficit looming in the next budget, which starts July 1 and which the next General Assembly will assemble to address on January 9.

"We all know the next two years portend difficult times," said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield.

The current deficit had been estimated at between $365 million and $417 million. Malloy ordered $170 million in cuts, but they had a net reduction of $113 million, according to nonpartisan fiscal analysts.

Although only one House Democrat voted against the adjustments, some lawmakers, particularly urban Democrats, said they were not happy with the cuts. However, they vowed not to hold up the bill.

"This is hard for me," said Rep. Ezequiel Santiago, D-Bridgeport. "These are cuts that are limiting services that are tough to support. We're going to have to revisit this. Once we make these cuts, I'm worried about more cuts coming down the line. I'll support this now, knowing the bigger battle is ahead."

The budget adjustments included several items related to Newtown, including provisions to provide schedule flexibility for the town's school district in the wake of the shooting. The district will not be required to conform to the mandate of 180 days of school.

Cuts to the general budget are in 140 different programs, ranging from $443 for the Stepping Stones Museum in Norwalk, to $4,500 for wildlife disease control involving the state Agricultural Experiment Station; and $25 million in debt service savings because of a favorable shift in interest rates. Two million dollars was eliminated from the state tourism marketing budget.

Bridgeport's Discovery Museum sustained a nearly $4,000 cut.

Hospital's were cut by about $103 million for Medicaid and low-income patients.

The $30 million in new revenue includes gathering up unused budget accounts in a process called sweeps; revisions in the state's tax credits for film production; and a conversion to bonding in the way that the state fund stem-cell research.

kdixon@ctpost.com; 860-549-4670; twitter.com/KenDixonCT; facebook.com/kendixonct.hearst; blog.ctnews.com/dixon