State budget ups funds for education

New Haven residents could see a renewed commitment to education and tax relief if the state legislature passes the governor’s recently announced budget proposals, politicians from both sides of the aisle said.

Two days after criticizing President George W. Bush ’68 for his proposed budget, Gov. M. Jodi Rell delivered her own budget priorities to the Connecticut legislature Wednesday, emphasizing education and a restructuring of the tax system.

“Today I am proposing the single largest investment in education in Connecticut history: 3.4 billion new dollars over the next five years,” Rell said in her address. “[My education plan] will save in terms of prisons we will not have to build, lower teen pregnancy rates, reduced high school drop out rates, and more.”

The amount of overall grant money that New Haven receives would increase under the governor’s proposal from $128.5 million to $178.7 million over five years, Rell spokesman Adam Liegeot ’94 said. These grants would include approximately $40 million for early childhood education and $50 million for college scholarships to both public and private universities. Members of both parties agreed that the influx of dollars into cities such as New Haven would allow municipalities to decrease the property tax burden.

New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. is pleased with Rell’s proposals, mayoral spokesman Derek Slap said.

“We’re still crunching the numbers, but the mayor gives the governor, at least on first glance here, an A on education,” Slap said. “Some of these things have been a long time coming in the state and the mayor thinks the governor deserves credit for that.”

DeStefano lost to Rell in the Connecticut gubernatorial race in the fall.

The governor also proposed to raise income taxes by one-quarter percent this year and another quarter of a percent next year, which Liegeot said would amount to a $280 increase for a family making $70,000 a year.

Democrats said Rell’s budget was cause for excitement. Representative Pat Dillon (D-92nd) said the focus on state-wide income taxes represents a shift away from using property taxes to raise money for local schools and programs. This is especially important in a city like New Haven, he said, which has so many tax-exempt properties. Land used by Yale University for educational purposes is not subject to property tax.

“It’s the best budget I’ve ever seen in 22 years,” Dillon said. “It’s hard to type-cast this budget, or this governor, as Republican.”

While Democrats praised Rell for her education proposal, Senate majority leader Martin Looney (D-11th) said the party would have liked the tax increases to have been more progressive. The governor’s proposal calls for across-the-board increases in income tax, but Democrats would prefer to shift the tax burden to state residents with higher incomes.

Democratic lawmakers also predicted disputes over how best to provide health care to the uninsured. Looney said the governor’s health proposal relied too much on the goodwill of private companies and did not go far enough in terms of offering state support.

“The governor’s proposal is really a wish and a hope rather than a program,” Looney said.

Though Looney said New Haven stands to gain from the infusion of new aid, the city will likely have to deal once again with cuts in federal support for Connecticut programs, which include low-income energy assistance and homeland security. Bush’s proposal would decrease support for states’ homeland security efforts from $528 million to $187 million and lower the total value of Lower Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, grants from $3.16 billion to $1.78 billion.

“Given the high cost of oil, this is really brutal,” Dillon said.

Rell was equally adamant in her criticisms of the president, declaring that the federal government has a responsibility to safeguard its citizens. She said the cuts burden the state in its efforts to protect families from harsh winters, terrorism and natural disasters.

According to a Rell press release, the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program, which relies on the LIHEAP grants, was expecting to receive $60.1 million from the federal government — already $4 million short of the desired amount. Now, the state will receive even less. She plans to push Connecticut representatives in Washington to remedy the situation, she said.

State Democrats said they are hopeful that disagreements over the budget will be worked out during the legislative session, but some remained cautious, waiting until they had the chance to dissect the proposal more thoroughly.

“The proof is in the details,” Representative William Dyson (D-94th) said. “It will take some time to sink in, to figure out what it all means.”

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