Teacher and nursing shortages, a need for affordable housing, lower income tax rates and the question of where to put Connecticut’s trash will all be topics of discussion when the state legislature convenes in January.
CT Examiner talked to advocates, interest groups and lawmakers on a variety of topics about what to look out for in the New Year.
State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, the ranking member on the Finance, Bonding and Revenue Committee, said the committee was considering a proposal that would drop the income tax rate from 5 to 4 percent for anyone making less than $175,000 a year. She said they would also put forward the idea of indexing the income tax brackets to inflation.
Cheeseman explained that without linking the income tax brackets to inflation, people making minimum wage would see their taxes go up “astronomically” right along with the increases in their wages.
Advocates are also calling for an extension of the state Child Tax Credit, which the state put in place in 2021. Cheeseman said that the group CT Voices for Children was calling for a child tax credit of $600 per year. She said some possible ways of funding it include using funds that were being saved from the paying down of the state’s pension debt, or by revisiting other tax credits and considering whether they were worth continuing.
Cheeseman said that she would prefer to see a more “broad-based” form of tax relief that would support not only families but also retirees on fixed incomes. She also said she wanted to find a way to provide relief to renters.
“We’ve seen the price of rent go through the roof,” she said.
Additionally, Cheeseman said, she would like to see a repeal of the Highway Use Tax, particularly in light of the ongoing high cost of diesel fuel.
“It’s the consumers who are going to pay the price,” she added.
State Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, the Senate minority leader, said he also thought the diesel tax holiday should be extended through the end of the fiscal year in June. He added that he wanted to do more to lower the state tax on pensions and social security income. He also said he wanted to raise the asset limit for seniors who want to receive state-sponsored home care from $1,600 to $10,000.
For Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, Chair of the Public Health Committee, a critical priority will be rolling out a comprehensive plan to address opioid addiction. He said this plan will include education for students and athletes about opioids and harm-reduction strategies, such as “overdose protection centers” that act as spaces where people can go to use drugs safely and get counseling, exchange syringes and be tested for HIV.
“We have been fighting the opioid epidemic for many years and every year we have been very focused on trying to reduce the death rate,” Anwar told CT Examiner.
The shortage of nurses, doctors and mental health professionals is also a problem he wants to address, starting at the high school level and working with the community colleges and universities to bring more people into the healthcare field. Not only that, he said, the shortage of Emergency Medical Services in some parts of the state mean that people in emergency situations are sometimes having to wait for medical services arriving from two or three towns away.
“If you look at many of the individual EMS systems across the state, the volunteer ambulance services are dying essentially in some parts,” he said.
Anwar said there needed to be a dashboard that would track response times from Emergency Services across the state. He also said emergency medical personnel needed to be paid at market rate rather than expected to volunteer their time, and that they needed to recruit more people to serve in these roles, even if only temporarily.
Also on the table will be a controversial bill on Aid in Dying, which will allow physicians to provide terminally ill patients with medication that will allow them to end their lives. The bill was first proposed 13 years ago. Last year, it failed to move out of the Judiciary Committee for consideration by the full general assembly.
On the healthcare side, Kelly said the Republicans wanted to continue to push for a reinsurance program, which he said could lower the price of premiums for families. He also said he wanted to look for ways to lower prescription drug prices through things like bulk purchasing with other states and
Kelly said he believed the state should avoid placing caps on the profits of pharmaceutical companies unless the caps were “thoughtful and deliberate” and would not interfere with the companies’ research and development budget. He noted the role that Pfizer had played in developing the COVID vaccine.
“We need to keep in mind that we have benefited from a pharmaceutical company right here in Connecticut,” he said.
A major piece of legislation on gun control first proposed last year by Gov. Ned Lamont will return to the judiciary committee this session. The proposal includes an expansion of the ban on assault weapons, requiring registration of “ghost guns,” and banning concealed carry in certain public spaces.
State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, said he’d also heard questions around whether the state could do more to prevent domestic violence.
Winfield said another concern of his was the relationship between Student Resource Officers and school districts, particularly in how discipline was administered. He said he wanted to bring forward a bill that would create standards around certain policies, such as using restraints on students.
“We want a clear distinction between what is in the realm of the police and what is in the realm of the schools’ disciplinary authorities,” said Winfield.
Children and Education
State Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, Chair of the Children’s Committee, said one of her focuses this year will be on a bill designed to offer more support for LGBTQ students. She said the bill will help create guidance on Title IX adherence and protections for these students, and will offer “educational outreach programs.” She said it will also look to expand one of the mental health bills passed last year, adding new mental health professionals in schools and providing “gender-affirming mental health care” for these students.
“Over the past few years … our children have been hearing so much animosity toward them for just being who they are – specifically the LGBTQ community,” Linehan said.
Other priorities for Linehan include creating a Title IX toolkit teaching school districts how to handle complaints of gender discrimination, funding the state police to conduct a “sting operation” against online predators, funding of a program that would help special needs children become familiar with first responders, and furthering the free breakfast and lunch program in schools.
Kelly, who is a ranking member on the Children’s Committee, said he thought they would need to look at the mental health bill passed last year and continue to work on reducing barriers for people accessing mental health providers. He said that insurance carriers, thanks to low reimbursement rates and high deductibles, often don’t have enough mental health professionals in their network to cover the demand, and that even people who have insurance can’t always find available mental health professionals.
“Mental health is at a critical need, and the thing about mental health is that when somebody asks for help, they’re opening the window. You don’t want the window to close and lose an individual who could have otherwise gotten the necessary support and resources to deal with their issue,” he said.
Meanwhile, on the school side, the Connecticut Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, Connecticut’s two largest teachers unions, say that addressing teacher shortages is one of their biggest priorities. In a survey that CEA conducted in October, the teachers suggested increased salaries, placing limits on non-teaching duties, hiring more counselors and psychologists and giving teachers mental health support.
State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, a ranking member on the Education Committee, said that the state had already done some things, such as emergency certifications and accepting teacher certification from other states, but she said that more needed to be done.
“We need to build the culture up and value our teachers,” said McCarty.
The childcare shortage is also a critical area of focus, McCarty said. She said that she was pleased that the Connecticut Business and Industry Association had recognized the importance of childcare in maintaining a strong workforce. She said she hoped there would be ways to partner with companies to give their employees monetary incentives toward childcare or possibly providing childcare on-site.
McCarty said the state also needed to look at how much money it was paying childcare workers.
“People are leaving the industry and going and getting jobs where they can get paid a lot more and they don’t have to have all of that qualification,” she said.
McCarty said she was also interested at looking at the state statute around bullying and looking at the use of restorative practices in the schools. She said the state also needs to review the results of the mental health supports the state put into the schools last year.
“I think that has to stay as a very high priority. We have so many students we need to work with on attendance issues,” said McCarty.
Lori Brown, executive director of the CT League of Conservation Voters, said her organization’s biggest priority was around figuring out what to do with the state’s garbage now that the MIRA trash plant was decommissioning.
“There’s no good solution to replace [MIRA], and as a result everything we’re doing now is either being landfilled or shipped out of state,” she said. She added that part of the goal was getting companies to help design programs to address the waste that comes from things like tires, packaging and food waste.
State Sen. Rick Lopes, D-New Britain, the new chair of the Environment Committee, said that waste was front and center in his mind as well. He said that about 800,000 tons of trash were being shipped out of the state each year because there are no landfills or trash-to-energy plants in the state to send it to.
“Waste disposal is an enormous problem that we have to dig into,” said Lopes.
Regarding environmental justice, Brown said she hoped for legislation that would allow the state to deny permitting or require mitigation when facilities like trash plants and recycling plants are being proposed in communities that already contain a large number of polluters. Brown said that a critical piece of this would be giving the communities themselves the opportunity to weigh in.
State Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, who is working on the environmental justice legislation, said it was too soon to give any specifics about the bill. But she did say that she wanted to look at where the state gives permits for polluting facilities and how many of those facilities are put in given areas. She also said that the state needed to make sure that distressed communities were able to benefit from any new jobs that were created by the implementation of green energy — for example, with electric vehicle charging stations.
“It’s as much about economic progress as it is about environmental justice,” she said.
Brown said she was also expecting legislation that would require the use of non-fossil-fuel based heating systems, like heat pumps, in new buildings and buildings undergoing major renovations.
“There’s all kinds of technologies and things that are totally available,” said Brown.
Lopes, who introduced this legislation last session, said that he was thinking about reintroducing this as part of a larger bill. He also pointed out that a second part of this bill was workforce development that would train people who worked in the oil and gas industry to install more fuel-efficient systems.
He also said he wanted to set aside funds to pay for people to insulate their apartments.
“We give people money to buy more oil, but if they are in a very energy inefficient apartment, it’s literally sending money out the window,” said Lopes.
Energy and Housing
State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, said he wanted to see if it was possible for the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, which sets utility rates and regulates the supply market, to have more oversight on energy supply rates.
State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said the committee would need to have a conversation about the way the energy market functioned in the state and about ISO New England, the state’s wholesale electricity provider. He said that PURA, at this time, doesn’t have the right to refuse utility rates simply because they are above a certain price.
“We have not given them the authority to reject rates that are based on the actual cost of acquiring energy,” said Steinberg, adding that the utility could only refuse electric rates when the utility had done something “untoward.”
Renewable energy will also be part of the discussion, Steinberg said, including encouraging communities and individuals to invest in solar energy and working with surrounding states on obtaining federal funding for a regional hydrogen hub.
Needleman said there also needed to be conversations around affordable housing, adding that the job market was linked to the housing market.
“I think we need to understand that there’s a tremendous value to having affordable housing throughout the state, we just need to get there in a way that’s not a sledgehammer approach or a one-size fits all approach,” he said.
Housing advocates, meanwhile, are proposing legislation that would increase towns’ obligations to come up with a certain amount of affordable housing, and offer the towns incentives to do that.
Erin Boggs, executive director of Open Communities Alliance, an organization that is part of a coalition of housing groups dedicated to addressing affordable housing, said that one of the coalition’s proposals would be the creation of a “process” that would determine each town’s “fair share” of affordable housing and then requiring towns to plan and zone according to that “fair share.”
Boggs said they would first calculate the total number of affordable housing units needed throughout the state. She said a “conservative” way of estimating that number would be looking at the number of people in the state who are making 30 percent or less of the Area Median Income and paying at least half of that income on rent — a number she estimated at about 135,000.
“We’re really at a dire time for families who simply need housing that doesn’t cost too much. And that is true for many, many, many families in Connecticut. And we are one of the most expensive states in the country,” she said.
The total number of affordable housing units needed statewide will then be broken down by region based on population, and then divided up between municipalities based on factors like the town’s grand list, median income, percentage of multifamily housing and its poverty rate. She said the proposal would contain incentives for towns to develop more affordable housing, including financial assistance. She also said there would be ramifications for towns who do not comply with the law, although she said she’s not sure what those would look like.
“Ultimately for a system to work, there needs to be a level of enforcement,” said Boggs.
She said the coalition is also proposing an allocation of $50 million to towns who “have done the right thing” in constructing affordable housing.
Another proposal on the table addresses the ability of landlords to refuse to rent to people based on prior eviction records or on criminal records. Greg Kirschner, Interim Director for CT Fair Housing, said they wanted to codify into state law that landlords could not discriminate against tenants based on their criminal or arrest records, similar to the guidance issued by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Fair Housing Act.
Kirshner also said they wanted to make records of prior evictions less accessible, so that large tenant screening companies cannot simply purchase these records in bulk.
“For people who have had evictions filed against them, they often act as a barrier for getting housing in the future. The mere filing can impact their ability to rent. So it’s important that eviction records not be available in a way that leads to that result,” said Kirshner.
Lopes, who is the former chair of the housing committee, said he also wanted to see annual funding allocated toward homeless shelters and homelessness prevention.
“People think the pandemic’s over and the housing crisis that came during that time are over, but in fact, they are going to get worse,” he said.
Business and Employment
Workforce shortages, small business affordability and the cost of living for Connecticut residents are the big three priorities for business, according to Chris DiPentima, executive director of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.
According to DiPentima, the number of job vacancies in the state as of November was 97,000 — nearly exactly the same as a year ago at this time.
And DiPentima said that getting more people in the state into the workforce is only part of the solution. Even if unemployment in the state was at zero, he said, there would still be 40,000 that weren’t filled.
“We just don’t have enough people of working age living in CT today,” he said.
The desire to attract more working-age people to the state is what’s behind many of the association’s proposals, including incentivizing employers to offer student loan reimbursement, incentivizing more housing development and making it easier and more attractive for immigrants to come to the state.
DiPentima said they also want to see “modest investments” that can help small businesses in the state. He said these businesses have had to pay employees more because of minimum wage law, while at the same time seeing their costs go up because of inflation. The association is suggesting allowing small business access to certain tax credits and creating accessible options for affordable healthcare plans for these businesses.
An additional concern is the potential expiration of fiscal “guard rails” in the state legislature, which prevent the state from spending more than a certain amount of its revenue and savings. DiPentima said those rules were critical to making sure the state could pay off its long-term debt.
“It just can’t be overstated how important those things have been to getting us out of our cycle of budget deficits and tax heights,” he said.
Brian Anderson and Zak Leavy, Legislative & Political Directors for the AFSCME Council 4 union, said in a statement that their biggest concern was a shortage of staffing, particularly in areas like the Department of Correction and the municipal police departments. They said the legislature needed to come up with a plan to recruit and retain these officers. But the staff shortage, while “dire” in law enforcement, isn’t limited there — they said that nearly every job in state government is understaffed, as well as many city and town governments.
Expansion of pandemic pay is a priority for two other unions, CSEA SEIU and SEBAC. Drew Stoner, spokesperson for the unions, said CSEA wanted pandemic pay to be available to school and town employees. Improved pay and benefits for paraeducators and childcare workers are also on the table for discussion.
The legislative session will convene Wednesday, Jan. 4.
Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that AFSCME Council 4 represents municipal rather than state police