HARTFORD — As state lawmakers wait on Gov. Ned Lamont’s February budget address – and the lengthy process of appropriating state money to follow — advocates for all variety of interests gathered at the Capitol to make their cases for a slice of revenue.
Next week, lawmakers delve into the issues that will animate debates at Capitol until the legislative sessions wraps up in June, as the public, state officials and outside experts file into Capitol hearing rooms and onto Zoom queues for the session’s first public hearings.
For now, we’re opening up our notebooks from the past week to share the news you didn’t see on CT Examiner’s home page this week.
Looney Offers Carrots for Regionalizing School Districts
State Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, is proposing a bill that would give extra construction funds to school districts that want to regionalize.
Under the bill, any school district in a town of under 25,000 people — which comprises 124 of Connecticut’s 169 towns — that decides to regionalize would receive a 20 percent increase in the reimbursement levels for school construction.
“Many of the districts have actually been losing population over the last decade or so, and yet they have the same central office administrative structure,” Looney told CT Examiner. “And it seems to me we could get significant economies of scale and have better overall school systems with more resources if we have more regional combinations.”
Fran Rabinowitz, the director of CAPSS, Connecticut’s superintendents association, said that while she didn’t support forcing districts to regionalize, she thought offering incentives was a good idea.
“[Small school districts] are wonderful in the sense that everybody knows everybody … but it’s very difficult to sustain them financially,” said Rabinowitz.
Rabinowitz said it was possible that regionalizing could also help with teacher shortages, depending on class sizes in the district. And Looney said that having regionalized school districts could allow the districts to offer a larger variety of arts and music programs than small districts can afford to offer.
Looney said that because school construction came from bonding funds, it was something the legislature could fund over multiple years.
“Many of those towns currently complain about [the] school construction reimbursement rate and this would give them the incentive of having more money,” said Looney.
Lamont calls to ban open carry
Gov. Ned Lamont wants lawmakers to ban the open carrying of firearms in most public places as part of a package of laws aimed at addressing gun violence.
The proposals would also raise the age to buy guns to 21, ban concealed carry of guns in bars, close “loopholes” in the state’s assault weapons ban, and make it a felony to own magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition – currently a $90 fine for the first offense.
“It’s our responsibility to implement policies that keep our homes and our neighborhoods safe, and we have to take every opportunity to keep our residents protected,” Lamont said in a news release. “These common sense reforms will protect our neighborhoods and the people who live in them.”
Lamont also called for limiting handgun purchases to one a month to prevent “straw purchasing,” where one person buys a gun for another, and to require people to register all untraceable “ghost guns” with the state. He also said lawmakers should invest another $2.5 million in community violence intervention programs.
Biggest obstacle to transportation is staffing
Presenting to the Transportation Committee on Monday, Department of Revenue Services Commissioner Mark Boughton said backfilling all the positions left over from a wave of retirements last year has been a challenge. Private engineering firms may be offering $20,000 more and the opportunity to work remotely and other perks, Boughton said – so it can be a challenge for the state to compete for engineers.
The department had 305 employees retire last year, and it currently has 562 vacant positions out of 3,567 full-time positions included in its budget, the department said.
“We only turn out about 200 civil engineers from all of our universities in the state, so we’ll never fill the need of DOT between the retirement program, and just general attrition that goes on,” Boughton said.
State Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, co-chair of the Transportation Committee said staffing challenges aren’t unique to Connecticut, but he said the ability to hire and retain engineers will be one of the “chief limitations” to Connecticut’s infrastructure investment program.
Republicans call for “guardrails” on legal marijuana
As retail marijuana stores open in Connecticut, House Republicans called for banning edibles, capping the potency of products, pausing new stores and repealing restrictions on police stopping drivers for suspicion of using marijuana, as “guardrails” against possible impacts of the newly-legal drug.
House Republican Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said Tuesday that the state needs to “pull the brakes” on the commercialization of marijuana to address gaps left by what he said was a bad law the legislature passed two years ago to legalize marijuana.
“Our concern today is, in this legislature, there’s conversations of actually expanding the program and making it even more accessible to the public at a time when we haven’t even gotten our arms around the enforcement and safety piece of this,” Candelora said.
State Rep. David Rutigliano, R-Trumbull, said the Republicans’ bill – which would also require childcare providers to report if a parent tries to pick up their child while “visibly under the influence of cannabis”, and prohibit the use of marijuana anywhere alcohol is prohibited – will have a public hearing in the General Law Committee in February.
Advocates ask for a “Bill of Rights” for students learning English
The Education nonprofit ConnCAN and the immigrant advocacy organization Make the Road Connecticut held a joint press conference on Wednesday promoting a bill that would codify rights of non-English speaking families for access to education.
The bill, raised by State Rep. Antonio Felipe, D-Bridgeport, and State Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, is based on a bill passed in New York and would include proposals for a right to have information translated into a parent or guardian’s native language, the right to have a meeting with school personnel at least once yearly, and the right to register a child in public school regardless of immigration status.
The State Department of Education told NBC Connecticut in a statement that it already had multiple programs in place for English language learners. The state also has a document that outlines the rights of families of children learning English — many similar to those enumerated in the bill.
But a parent whose testimony was read at the press conference recounted the experience of having to translate school forms on her cell phone and going to school-run meetings that didn’t offer interpretation. Another said it took three weeks before she understood that she could enroll her son in school even though they did not have legal immigration status.
“I am very frustrated with Connecticut Public Schools. I want to be a hundred percent involved with my children’s education, but there’s no way I can do this when there’s no information in my language or nobody speaks my language,” Gracie Perez, an immigrant from Guatemala who has three children, said in her testimony.
Candelaria said there are multiple models of teaching English to students who speak a different language, and that different districts may offer different models. He said there need to be discussions between parents and the school district about which model is the best one for their child.
“Education is a human basic right, and we need to ensure that our children have the tools necessary to succeed in life,” he said.
What we’re writing about this week
Middletown Democrats will endorse Kai Belton to run for the State House seat formerly held by State Rep. Quentin “Q” Williams, who was killed in a wrong-way crash earlier this month. Middletown Republicans will endorse Deborah Kleckowski to run for the 100th State House District.
Anabel Figueroa won the endorsement of Stamford Democrats to run for the 148th House District seat that Democrat Dan Fox vacated ahead of his expected nomination to be a Superior Court judge. Stamford Republicans endorsed Olga Anastos.
Nurses rallied at the state Capitol to push for minimum staffing requirements at hospitals, ban mandatory overtime and add protections for nurses against violence at their jobs.
Lamont pressed lawmakers to make companies responsible for waste from their packaging and to boost food scrap diversion programs to cut down the 860,000 tons of Connecticut trash that is being trucked to out-of-state landfills.
Lawmakers are again looking to rein in the oft-criticized contracting practices of the Connecticut Port Authority, which have drawn scrutiny throughout its years-long process of redeveloping the New London State Pier.