The Connecticut legislature took up its work in earnest this week, as crowds filled the Capitol complex to shape the ideas and spending priorities that will drive this year’s legislative session.
CT Examiner has two reporters in Hartford to keep an eye on the legislative process, but with constant meetings, press conferences and hallway conversations, more happens in a given day than we can put in print.
Here are few of the stories that didn’t make the front page of the CT Examiner website this week, but that we think will be important throughout the session, especially as lawmakers try to piece different priorities into a biennial state budget.
Birthing Centers and Reproductive Services
The Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee has voted to raise a bill that would provide access to reproductive services to university students. State Rep Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, said the bill was partly in response to concerns he and State Sen. Mae Flexer, D- Killingly had heard from students about access to reproductive services, particularly transportation to healthcare facilities.
“Nationally, I think young people have been rocked by the change in policy across the country with regard to access to reproductive rights,” said Flexer, referring to the supreme court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
But State Rep. Brain Lanoue, R-Griswold, said at the meeting that he didn’t understand why Roe v. Wade was part of the conversation, since none of the laws in Connecticut had changed as a result of the decision. He also asked if the bill would consider the role of pregnancy care centers as a source of reproductive care for women who want to carry a pregnancy to term.
Lanoue later told CT Examiner that he did not support the concept because he felt that the bill was “trying to promote a pro-abortion agenda.”
He told CT Examiner, “I have to certainly protect the rights and the liberties and the life of the people of Connecticut … and that includes the unborn woman, the unborn child.”
Flexer said there were also local level concerns that needed to be addressed by the legislature, including the potential closure of maternity units at two hospitals in more rural regions of the state — Sharon Hospital in Litchfield County and Hartford Healthcare’s Windham Hospital in the Northeast corner.
State Rep. Jay Case, R-Winsted, said the closure of Sharon Hospital’s birthing center would mean a 45 minute or hour-long drive for many people living in the Northwest corner.
“We have to look at healthcare and where healthcare is spread out throughout Connecticut. And I don’t know if you know what the Northwest corner is like, but it’s 900 square miles of country roads,” Case told CT Examiner.
State Rep. Kate Ferrar, D-West Hartford, said it was important to listen to students’ concerns about reproductive health care in the same way that they would take into account concerns about transportation to class or childcare.
“It’s really an opportunity for us to listen [to the students] and really about making sure that they can be successful as students in our state,” said Ferrar.
Funding Shore Line East
In a meeting with the Transportation Committee on Wednesday, the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council renewed its calls for the legislature to restore pre-COVID service levels on Shore Line East. The state has pinned the bare-bones schedule on the high cost – with a $55.28 per-ride subsidy that’s one of the highest in the state.
Commuter Rail Council chair Jim Gildea said that while other lines have had their schedules restored after the pandemic cratered ridership, the state has been waiting for Shore Line East ridership to pick back up before bringing more trips back to the rail line between New Haven to New London.
“The other lines did not wait for the ridership to come – they put the service back to attract riders,” Gildea said.
Council member Zell Steever from Groton said the state undervalued Shore Line East as a way to bring commuters to Groton to work at Electric Boat and Pfizer. Steever said most workers are forced to drive in – often alone – because there is no transit option.
“It’s not a small matter that there are no trains that come into New London – nevermind Groton, because that doesn’t exist right now – to get people potentially to work,” Steever said.
Nonprofits strained under static funding
Nonprofits providing state safety net services said their funding hasn’t kept up with inflation since the 2008 recession, leaving them understaffed as their underpaid workers find jobs elsewhere.
Tracy Walker, CEO of Journey Found – which serves adults with disabilities in north-central and southeastern Connecticut – said the organization has had to shut down two programs in the past year as it struggles to fill about 30 open positions – a vacancy rate of 13 percent.
“We’ve had to turn away 60 people in the past 12 months just because we couldn’t support them,” Walker said at a press conference at the Capitol on Thursday.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said there hadn’t been an increase in state funding for these non-profits between 2007 and 2017, then a 1 percent cost of living adjustment in 2018, a minimum wage increase in 2019, and a 4 percent adjustment in 2021, which had not kept up with the pace of inflation since 2007.
Osten said the state needs to boost funding by $261 million next year (9 percent) and $221 million in 2025 (7 percent) to shore up funding for the nonprofits.
“Let’s face it, the efficiencies have come at the cost of the workers, that’s where the savings have been,” Osten said. “The savings have come because we paid workers less, and we gave them no benefits, and we expected them to stay.”
Should PURA and DEEP be split?
A question that has been brewing around the Capitol appears ripe this year as lawmakers on the Energy and Technology Committee agreed it should be part of their agenda this session: Is it a conflict on interest for the state utility regulator also to be a part of the state’s energy department, tasked with pushing the state towards renewable energy?
State Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, said she thinks it’s important that the agencies dealing with energy policy are “running in the same direction” towards Connecticut’s goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2040.
“If we were to separate the two again, they’re now running in two different directions,” Mushinsky said. “One of them may be concentrating on price, and the other one may be concentrating on emissions.”
State Rep. Steve Meskers, D-Greenwich, said his concern was that PURA should be separate from DEEP on the utilities’ distribution systems, not on generation and the shift to renewables.
“I want to make sure that, if I’m paying for a Cadillac on infrastructure, I’m getting a Cadillac,” Meskers said. “And if I’m paying for a Cadillac and I’m getting a Yugo, I want to know why.”
What we’re writing about
In case you missed our coverage, here are the stories we filed from the Capitol this week:
A proposal by a group of Democratic lawmakers to raise taxes on the wealthy is at odds with tax priorities outlined by Gov. Ned Lamont, who said he wants to cut taxes “across the board” as he prepares a budget for a surplus of more than $3 billion.
The percent of students who are chronically absent from school has nearly doubled since before the pandemic, and districts and the state are looking for ways to continue funding a home visitation program shown to boost attendance.
Debated for a decade, a bill that would allow a person with a terminal illness to end their life with doctor-prescribed medicine is back on the table after making progress last year.
In a press appearance at a Hartford-area business, Gov. Ned Lamont stumped for his biennial budget by proposing to restore a tax credit for about 123,000 small- and medium-sized businesses amounting to an estimated $60 million.
As the Connecticut State College and University system faces a $220 million deficit over the next two years, students and union members from the colleges say they fear tuition hikes that would make it difficult for them and their peers to afford their education.
Members of the Hispanic and Latino community are once again calling for an expansion of HUSKY that would provide health insurance to all people living in Connecticut, regardless of immigration status.
Republicans called for taking the costs of state renewable energy policies out of electric bills and into the state budget, as the Democratic co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee said the committee is open to all ideas to address high energy costs and concerns about reliability in the winter.