HARTFORD – Addressing juvenile crime through increased mental health services, negotiating expiring state employee contracts and trying to fully re-open the Capitol to the public are among the top priorities Democratic House Speaker Matthew Ritter has set for the upcoming legislative session.
Ritter says a shortage of mental health services for young people is a major obstacle toward making inroads on a widespread uptick of crimes being committed by young people.
“This dovetails with the issues we’re seeing with juvenile justice,” Ritter, a legislator representing Hartford since 2010 and elected Speaker last year, told CT Examiner on Wednesday. “A lot of these issues stem from mental health and traumatic experiences,” of teenagers. “The intervention has to be there.”
Democrats will be piecing together a bill to fund an array of strategies, he said, including increased use of telemedicine visits between teens and mental health professionals, as well as establishing incentives to try to attract more people into a field that is chronically understaffed.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently declared the situation as a crisis, citing the “soaring rates of mental health challenges among children, adolescents, and their families” that is “inextricably tied to the stress brought on by COVID-19.”
Ritter said Democrats, who hold majorities in both the House and Senate, will also be open to working with Republicans who have been emphasizing stricter criminal reforms to tackle the problem.
Last month, he held an informal and bipartisan Capitol hearing at which many of the issues were explored with state agency commissioners, health care providers and legislators.
“I think this is an important bipartisan issue and there’s a lot of overlap there,” he said. “We know that there are always going to be a handful of kids who don’t respond to treatment,” and may need more attention from the criminal justice system. “But at the end of the day, juvenile justice reform starts with intervention and mental health services.”
Ritter said he is aiming to push for a “fully fleshed-out bill” to be submitted during the first month of the session, which begins February 9 and ends on May 4.
And after debating and passing complicated and hotly-debated legislation last year such as legalizing recreational marijuana and authorizing early voting, he said, this year’s “short” session will need to focus on select initiatives.
“There’s just not going to be a lot of time to do hundreds of bills,” he said.
Another significant portion of that time will be dedicated to negotiating new contracts with the state employee unions, collectively known as SEBAC.
Contracts passed in 2017 under former Gov. Dannel Malloy expire next June, and are expected to trigger a wave of retirements due to changes in how annual cost-of-living pension increases are paid to retirees.
House rules dictate that votes be taken on each individual contract, Ritter said.
“We will have to spend a lot of time on these contracts – we could be looking at hundreds and hundreds of hours to get these done,” he said.
Whether the Capitol complex will be fully reopened to the public during the session is another weighty question.
In response to the pandemic, public meetings since last year have been held mainly on Zoom video, with legislators having the option to attend in-person and the public being able to testify remotely.
Limited public access resumed in July, but is restricted to the ground floors of the Capitol and the adjacent Legislative Office Building.
“I think we’d all like to open things up, but it’s going to come down to where we are with Omicron in January and February,” Ritter said of the new coronavirus strain that is working its way across the nation. “You can’t pack 2,000 people in a room if there is a major public hearing on gun legislation or something like that. Those are things you have to account for.”
With all legislators and Democrat Gov. Ned Lamont up for reelection next fall, Ritter naturally expects politics to play an increased role in the session on both sides of the aisle, but said he will not try to tailor any legislation to benefit specific candidates, including the Governor.
“I certainly hope he gets reelected,” Ritter said of Lamont. “But we vote on bills we believe in.”