A few days after offering legislators a list of potential cuts to pay for a $33-million shortfall in the state's low-income energy assistance programs, Gov. M. Jodi Rell Monday backed away from eliminating $5 million for Metro-North Railroad branches in New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury.

"In hindsight, I can see how inclusion of this item on the list sent the wrong message," Rell said following a weekend of criticism from lawmakers and commuter advocates.

Rell, a Republican in the final week of her tenure, listed the $5 million to operate the branch lines among $38.8 million worth of suggested budget cuts sent last Wednesday to Appropriations Committee co-chairs Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, and Rep. John Geragosian, D-New Britain.

"The list of cuts was prepared by the Office of Policy and Management as a menu of options for the legislature to consider as a way to fill a funding hole in the winter home heating assistance program for seniors and low-income families," Rell said. "The suggested rail cuts are not cuts that I approve or will support."

But she said the legislature must "own up to its responsibility" to figure out how to fund the low-income energy assistance programs at last year's levels.

In late September, Rell and the Department of Social Services, fearing a 45-percent reduction in federal funding, proposed changes in eligibility and benefits that would save around $33 million.

The programs are overseen by DSS and administered through community action agencies, such as CTE Inc. in Stamford, Action for Bridgeport Community Development Inc. and the Community Action Committee of Danbury, Inc.

But legislative Democrats in charge of the committees of cognizance -- appropriations, human services and energy and technology -- turned down the recommended changes, arguing it would leave an estimated 18,800 households in the cold.

Rell has ruled out borrowing, citing Connecticut's estimated $3.4 billion deficit.

Geragosian and Harp wrote Rell Nov. 23 that it was premature to reduce or deny benefits but offered to discuss funding options with the administration. That resulted in Rell's issuing her $38.8 million list of proposed cuts, including the Metro-North branches, on Nov. 24.

"Quite frankly a lot of those cuts were litigated during the budget process and many would hurt cities and towns, education, libraries, things we stood up for as part of the budget process." Geragosian said Monday.

He added that he hoped the two sides would be able to schedule a meeting to ensure families have heat this winter. Rell agreed.

As of Nov. 15, according to DSS, 57,964 had applied for energy assistance; 42,141 of those were determined to be eligible for the help.

Staff Writer Brian Lockhart can be reached at brian.lockhart@scni.com.