December 15, 2017

Legislature eyes holiday session to fix social services program

With partisan feuding providing the final push Thursday, the state legislature now will come into session between between Christmas and New Year's Day to reverse an unpopular cut to a social services program for poor seniors and the disabled.

The Senate Democratic Caucus submitted the final signatures needed Thursday to force a special session between Dec. 24 and Dec. 29 to restore funds to the Medicare Savings Program, which uses Medicaid funds to help pay medical expenses that Medicare doesn't cover.

But legislative sources said no session would be scheduled on Dec. 24 or 25 because of the Christmas holiday.

The 17 signatures of Democratic senators sent to Secretary of the State Denise Merrill's office caps a strange week of battling over the savings program and the state budget deficit.

"The Medicare Savings Program helps many seniors and residents with disabilities make ends meet," said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven. "It is important that we reach a bipartisan consensus to restore the Medicare Savings Program just as it is critical that we continue our bipartisan work on a deficit mitigation package to bring the budget back into balance."

Democratic and Republican leaders in both chambers originally agreed to come into session on Dec. 19 — but only to to restore the roughly $54 million needed to cancel new restrictions that could reduce or eliminate benefits for an estimated 113,000 poor seniors and disabled residents by late February.

They did not plan to address the projected $208 million state budget deficit until January.

The quickest way for the legislature to return would be a summons by the governor. But Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wasn't interested in a session only to address the social services program and not the deficit.

Legislators began to petition themselves into session. The two House caucuses earlier this week submitted more than the 76 signatures needed to bring the 151-member chamber into special session.

As late as Wednesday, Looney had said Senate Democrats could not take part in a special session until shortly after Jan. 1 because of scheduling conflicts.

But Thursday he relented and his caucus submitted signatures from 17 Democratic senators to Secretary of the State Denise Merrill's office. Coupled with the 17 GOP senators' signatures submitted Wednesday, that easily surpassed the 19 signatures needed to bring the 36-member Senate into session.

By law that session must begin no earlier than 10 days from the date of final submission, and no later than 15 days afterward. That creates the window of Dec. 24 through 29.

Why did Senate Democrats relent and agree to go into session just after Christmas?

Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven sent Democratic leaders a letter Thursday urging immediate action to help seniors and the disabled.

"Any excuse not to hold a session because certain lawmakers are not around during the holidays is a flawed argument, because we do not need a full chamber to adopt a bipartisan fix," Fasano wrote.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, also issued a statement earlier Thursday pressing Democrats to act now.

"Republican and Democrat leaders agreed Monday on the MSP fix without raising taxes when we all knew we had a $208 million deficit," she said. "Nothing about that has changed and we need to stick to our original understanding and give certainty to our seniors and those who qualify for Medicare."

Looney, who suggested Wednesday that leaders begin talks with the governor immediately on ways to restore the Medicare Savings Program funds and to mitigate the deficit shortly after Jan. 1, accused the GOP Thursday of "desperate grandstanding."

"It appears that the Republicans are more interested in political theater than doing what is best for the state of Connecticut," Looney said. "Perhaps after the long struggle of producing a bipartisan budget, they can no longer handle sharing in the burden of solving our state's fiscal issues. They would prefer to pick and choose what to work on instead of sitting at the table and governing."

Fasano responded late Thursday that, "Aside from Senator Looney's erroneous and unsubstantiated accusations about Republicans, I am very happy to hear that the General Assembly has now submitted enough petitions to call a special session before the new year to restore funding for the Medicare Savings Program. … We should not hold the program hostage until deficit mitigation — a meticulous process which I look forward to beginning with fellow legislative leaders. Restoring this funding will bring peace of mind to thousands of seniors and individuals with disabilities."

Kelly Donnelly, spokeswoman for Malloy, said, "While we'd like to see the full deficit addressed, if legislative leaders have an actionable plan for how they will pay for changes to the Medicare Savings Program, we ask that they share those details with us. What's most important is that any proposal to restore funding is balanced with real and achievable spending cuts. Otherwise, this 'fix' would only exacerbate the larger, looming challenges we face."

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