Facing the largest state budget deficit of his seven-year administration, Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland ordered many state agencies last Monday to halt an estimated $88 million in planned spending. While many local political leaders realize a cut is necessary, some Democrats think Gov. Rowland is playing favorites and keeping his own interests off the chopping block.

Nearly $13 million of the proposed cuts will come from mental health initiatives — programs strongly backed by New Haven Democrats like Rep. Patricia Dillon — while only $2 million will be slashed from the Kelda Lands open space acquisition project in Fairfield.

“It’s very clear that programs such as the Kelda property are sacred cows for the governor,” Dillon said. “It gets a token cut while mental health is cut over $12 million.”

But Dean Pagani, Rowland’s spokesman, said funds allocated to mental health programs are being removed from last year’s state budget surplus as opposed to the normal budget.

“It’s not technically a cut,” Pagani said. “It is very important to us to preserve open space, and it in no way means mental health is not a priority.”

All proposed surplus cuts require the approval of Connecticut’s General Assembly, which currently has a Democratic majority. This might make securing mental health care cuts especially difficult for Rowland when the Assembly meets again in February, 2002.

Those involved directly with general health care and mental health care initiatives are divided on the governor’s plan.

“This [taking from the surplus as opposed to the normal budget] is the least worst way to deal with it,” said Dr. Wayne Dailey, a spokesman for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Dailey said that drawing from the surplus — even if it means mental health initiatives will lose some funding — is the best compromise to avoid laying off those already on the state’s payroll.

“The sustained commitment to support mental health in this state is most important,” Dailey said. “I feel that we still have the state’s backing and that this does not represent a continued trend.”

Director Paul Kowalski of New Haven’s Environmental Health Program disagreed.

“Any kind of cuts that affect the health of the population aren’t worthwhile,” he said.

But whether the cuts are worthwhile or not, many think they will still have a major impact on the New Haven community.

Dillon said clinical services for Connecticut residents who are not Medicaid eligible — many of whom live in New Haven — may be severely affected by the proposed cuts. In the past, people in need of mental health care have flocked to New Haven because of its service-friendly reputation.

“Other towns don’t help these people like New Haven has,” Dillon said. “These cuts will make it harder for us to do that.”

Rowland also has the option of reaching into the state’s budget reserve, known as the “rainy day fund,” to combat the deficit. While legislators like Dillon and Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin B. Sullivan of West Hartford support using the rainy day fund rather than making across-the-board budget cuts, Pagani said the fund is only for emergencies and the impending $91 million deficit is not an emergency.

“We don’t know exactly how large [the deficit] will go,” Pagani said. “Right now it’s not a true crisis.”