The budget process is in full swing after Gov. Ned Lamont presented his proposal to lawmakers last week. Various departments of government have filed in and out of the appropriations hearing room to make their cases to lawmakers, which will continue through next week.
At the same time, members of the public and various stakeholders are filling hearings and Zoom queues to voice their concerns to lawmakers.
Here’s what we heard this week:
Needleman: Making energy laws a full-time job
State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, co-chair of the Energy & Technology Committee, said before a public hearing Tuesday that the committee has an “enormous task” to try to figure out how to manage utility rates and how to transition to renewable energy in a cost-effective way that doesn’t compromise reliability. And the legislature does all that in the face of a system not designed to make it a co-equal branch of government, he said.
“This is really a full-time job to do this correctly. This is complicated work,” Needleman said. “As much as I love working with advocates and with the agencies, it would be more of a myth to assume that we’re actually a co-equal branch of government, and you cannot do the work that we’re charged with doing effectively with the amount of staff and the hours in the day.”
Needleman, who said he takes no money from the state for his work as a legislator, said the legislature’s part-time status makes it difficult for the energy committee to actually share the responsibility of creating policies with state agencies – whom the lawmakers are overdependent on for their expertise.
“I understand the view of a citizen legislature, but in my years of running a municipality, the rules have changed,” Needleman said. “The job has gotten infinitely more complicated.”
UConn, CSCU students and faculty ask for more money for higher ed
After Lamont announced his budget last week, officials from UConn and the State Colleges and Universities said that the money the governor had set aside was not enough to cover the increases in salaries and fringe benefits for their staff — with UConn president Radenka Maric going so far as to threaten to pull UConn sports teams from playing at Hartford’s XL Center.
Lamont said in a statement that the state allocation to UConn and UConn Health was the largest in state history. But the decrease in federal coronavirus relief funding means that the state’s public colleges and universities are receiving less funding overall compared to last year.
UConn students came out to the Capitol in protest on Wednesday. Maric said that the University might have to increase its tuition by $3,000 annually to make up for the shortfall that Lamont’s budget left them with.
Rakim Grant, a student at Southern Connecticut State University, told the Appropriations Committee that Lamont’s budget proposal and the possibility of tuition being hiked thousands of dollars didn’t match his words about equitably building a better future for the state and expanding the system for people in need.
Grant said he spoke to lawmakers a few years ago about tuition increases, and asked how much students should be expected to work to pay for school, and how long they should be expected to be in debt after they earn a degree.
“The consistent tuition increases have answered my questions,” he said.
Nursing homes in opposition to proposed increased staffing requirements
Nursing home administrators testified in strong opposition to a bill that would increase the number of hours that patients receive direct care from 3 hours to 4.1 hours daily. Administrators told lawmakers on Thursday that the new requirements would only put more pressure on their already depleted staff and force them to spend more money on staffing agencies charging high prices for temporary workers.
Curtis Rodowicz, co-owner of Colonial Health And Rehab in Plainville, called the goal of 4.1 direct care hours “unreachable.” He said that while the additional cost of staff salaries would be over $1 million for his business, even additional money wouldn’t address the real problem — the staffing shortage.
“The climate for this workforce can be best described, in my eyes, as disintegrating. It’s just dissolving,” said Rodowicz.
State Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, told Keith Brown of Apple Rehab that she was concerned about the owners of nursing homes, particularly those of large corporations, sacrificing care for profit.
“Some of the concerns that we have is that you have owners … they are taking significant pay, they are taking significant bonuses, but they are cutting out care,” said Cook.
Rodowicz said that the real solution to the problem was to invest more in workforce training. He cited a lack of enrollment in nursing schools and a lack of available slots.
But not all legislators were convinced that the labor shortages were the problem.
“The first nursing home, the first hospital that truly increases their wages, gives very good health insurance … the first one that gives good healthcare and good benefits, you will not have a staffing problem,” said State Sen. Martha Marx, D-New London. “There are 40,000 nurses in Connecticut who are not working, and that’s because it’s an exhausting, really hard job.”
What we’re writing this week
Connecticut’s state colleges and universities pressed lawmakers to increase their funding to avoid major budget shortfalls.
The long-running conflict between advocates for more affordable housing and demands to maintain local zoning control picked up again with a new slate of housing bills in Hartford.
Utilities said a bill aimed at increasing their accountability would undercut the last major effort lawmakers made at tightening the reins on electric companies after Tropical Storm Isaias.
Hundreds of people urged lawmakers to expand HUSKY health insurance to cover people who are undocumented through age 26.