Mayor says Rell budget will hurt city’s programs

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has loudly voiced his opinion that Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s state budget proposal would have a negative economic impact on New Haven, and some of the city’s business leaders agree.

Rell’s proposal would cut funding for the arts statewide and would end a program that provides millions of dollars in state funding for research and development in biotechnology every year, a move DeStefano said will offset the economic impact of the governor’s proposed investment in stem cell research. A number of city leaders have expressed concern that New Haven would be hit particularly hard by both policies due to its investment in the arts and biotechnology sectors.

However, Rell’s allocation of $667 million to improve the state’s transportation infrastructure — an investment DeStefano said was insufficient — met with strong approval from Metro-North Railroad officials.

DeStefano, a Democrat who traveled to the state capital last week to hold a joint conference with Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez to voice his displeasure with the Republican governor’s budget, said the proposal would fail to stimulate economic growth in the state. Though he acknowledged that the governor had to take measures to cope with the state’s $1.3 billion budget gap, he said lack of investment in job growth was what caused Connecticut’s tight budget situation in the first place.

“It’s like when you buy your house, your first house,” said DeStefano, who is running for governor in 2006. “You’re going to have to borrow some money sometimes and struggle and sacrifice to get something that is going to serve you well over the long term.”

Rell spokesman Adam Liegeot ’94 said the governor, who took office in June, was constrained by budget limitations imposed by the “mess” that was left by budgets from previous years. One of the reasons for this year’s budget gap was the state’s past reliance on one-time revenue sources like property sales.

“No doubt about it, there are cuts in this budget that the governor did not want to make,” Liegeot said.

Although New Haven did not receive as much funding as it requested from the state, there was a nominal increase in the city’s state aid since last year.

“Given that budget times are tough everywhere, it is good to see that there is an increase and of course the governor’s budget is just the starting point in the process, not the end point,” Yale Associate Vice President of New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand said.

Liegeot also stressed that Rell remains open to considering modifications of her budget proposal. For example, the governor has recently said she might consider a “millionaires tax” on the state’s wealthiest residents if Democrats in the legislature are willing to work with her on reducing spending.

“The budget is an evolving document, and what the governor proposed may not end up in the final version,” he said.

New Haven’s arts community will be lobbying legislators in the hope of effecting such changes to avoid the cuts Rell suggested in state funding to the Commission on Culture and Tourism.

“This budget doesn’t recognize that we’re an intelligent state and people really appreciate the arts,” New Haven Economic Development Administrator Henry Fernandez said. “The city of New Haven continues to invest in the arts, and we think the state should, too.”

Under Rell’s proposal, New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas — which runs free artist-in-residence workshops and events on the New Haven Green year-round in addition to organizing the city’s 16-day annual arts festival — would see its state funding slashed from $1.26 million in 2003-2004 to $675,000 in 2005-2006. According to festival director Mary Miller, the festival is a major economic force in the region, having generated $120 million in economic impact across the state over the past nine years and employing over 1,000 artists from 22 Connecticut cities in 2004 alone.

“New Haven, as a sort of cultural hub, generates an enormous amount of economic impact for the state through its arts activity,” Miller said. “What we do is transforming for the city and the state, and that effect is measurable.”

Miller said the state’s funding cuts would prevent the festival from being able to run a number of free programs that benefit area residents, especially children. She said the festival is already working with legislators in an effort to prevent the funding cuts from being included in the state’s final budget.

“We will fight tooth-and-nail to find the money to sustain our program,” Miller said. “I have no intentions of cutting anything this year.”

Expressing concern with the governor’s decision to cut Connecticut’s research and development tax exchange program that has brought bioscience companies major revenue returns, members of the New Haven biotech industry have also vowed to lobby to prevent the program from being extinguished. Andrea Enders, communications director of Connecticut United for Research Excellence, Inc., Connecticut’s bioscience cluster, said the bioscience community has been trying to enact the program as a permanent policy since 1999.

“The bioscience industry was very surprised when we heard about these changes because biotech is such a vital part of Connecticut, and especially New Haven,” Enders said.

Rell is pushing a $20 million investment over two years in stem cell research, but DeStefano said this investment pales in comparison to the much greater amounts that will be spent in California, New York and New Jersey.

“It’s an investment modest to the point of insignificance,” DeStefano said.

But Enders said she is optimistic about the stem cell funding, though she is hoping for a larger investment, which has been proposed by Democratic leaders in the legislature.

“We are excited about the stem cell program,” she said. “We’ve also had talks with [legislators in] the state house and senate who are willing to commit $100 million to stem cell research over the next five years, which would be very helpful for this area where there is no federal funding available.”

Support for Rell’s budget was also voiced in the transportation sector. Jim Cameron, vice chairman of the Metro-North/Shore Line East Commuter Council, praised the governor’s proposed transportation investment as well as her idea to fund improvements with a tax on gas. Rell’s proposal would also impose a $1 surcharge on all Metro-North rides starting as soon as new rail cars are in place — estimated in 2008 — raising funds that would all be invested in rail improvements.

“I have heard no complaints from commuters who think the surcharge is unfair, but I have heard lots of people say, ‘Thank God they are finally doing something,'” Cameron said. “I give Jodi Rell big points for her budget proposal. Overall, I think she deserves a huge amount of credit for stepping up to the plate.”

Comments