Legislators, local leaders discuss priorities [Register Citizen]

January 20, 2015

Register Citizen

TORRINGTON >> It was a classic scenario when legislators and government leaders got together to discuss priorities for the year Thursday morning. There was a list of needs, a call to stop spending and some debate about where to cut.

The Northwest Hills Council of Governments presented its annual list of legislative priorities to state senators and representatives for the area at a special meeting at the UConn Torrington campus. The list — of only four items — asked legislators to ensure the state budget maintains current levels of aid to towns, to oppose unfunded mandates, promote job creation and economic development and to protect public health and safety infrastructure — that is, reduce financial stress on local hospitals and protect the Troop A and B Connecticut State Police Barracks.

Leo Paul Jr. and Barbara Henry, first selectmen of Litchfield and Roxbury respectively and co-chairmen of the NHCOG’s legislative committee, briefly introduced the priorities, endorsed by the first selectmen of the council’s 21 member towns. Paul then turned the floor over to the legislators, who gave updates on bills and committees and stressed how well the towns and legislators work together.

State Rep. Roberta Willis, who represents several Northwest Corner towns, said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s priority for the year is transportation and she is looking to ensure that his plan includes an investment in rail in the Northwest Corner.

State Rep. Jay Case, who had to leave early for the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities caucus meeting in Hartford, mentioned staffing the state police barracks and removing barriers to mental health services.

“It’s pretty disturbing. People who want help, want to go to facilities, have to be high on the drug to get treatment. I put in a bill to ensure if people want help, please allow them in,” Case said. “If you have state insurance you’re welcome in, people will take you, but if you have private insurance, you have to pay yourself. I don’t think it’s right that you’re discriminated against if you have private health insurance.”

State Sen. Clark Chapin, who represents several Northwest Corner towns, Torrington and Winchester, said he had taken on revisions to the stormwater discharge regulations, which many town leaders have called another unfunded mandate. As representative to several towns with hospitals, he said he was also working to do away with “the hospital tax.”

State Rep. Michelle Cook, of Torrington, outlined plans to increase funding for vo-ag schools, which she said are an important driver of the county’s economy. She also said she was working to lessen the burden of special education costs and protect hospitals and nursing homes.

“It is such a huge cost but at the same time, our seniors and people who are ill and need our help, we need to keep in mind,” Cook said.

State Sen. Kevin Witkos blasted the state’s current method of appropriating education cost sharing funds, which he said shortchanged vo-ag and regional schools, which are plentiful in Litchfield County.

“We don’t have — well, we have a formula for ECS — but we don’t utilize that anymore. We haven’t since Gov. Rell,” Witkos said. “Every legislature since then has just appropriated the funds that flow to the towns for education… through the legislature deciding who the winners and losers are.”

Witkos predicted that ECS funding would continue to be flat-funded because, he said, each representative fights against a decrease in funding for his towns.

“I don’t know that we’ll see a cut because I’m not sure there’s enough backbone from the legislature,” he said. “I’m guessing it will be flat-funded. What you got last year you’ll likely get this year.”

Still, many acknowledged cuts were likely to come somewhere to balance the state’s 2015’s $1.3 billion budget deficit. Legislators, who recalled the governor’s promise to not raise taxes, said they couldn’t promise state aid to towns would be maintained.

“We’re looking at a large deficit and a lot of oxen probably have to get gored,” Willis said. “Both sides of the aisle have been committed to maintaining level spending. I’m not sure we will be able to keep that commitment this time around.”

Case agreed.

“We are doing our best to make sure it doesn’t hurt the municipalities or small business in Connecticut because that’s the backbone,” Case said, touching on a fear that was repeated throughout the meeting — that people are leaving. “That’s where my heart is — in keeping people here in the state of Connecticut and the Northwest Corner.”

By the time the legislators had finished detailing their projects, state Rep. Craig Miner, of Litchfield, had had enough.

“We need to get beyond bullet points and talk about the systemic problem in the state of Connecticut,” Miner said. “We work in a bipartisan fashion for many of the things we do but one thing we don’t do is look at things differently.”

He pointed to the two-week delay the legislature had agreed to while Malloy worked on the deficit, but warned the audience not to anticipate any action.

“We’ll wait for the governor to release his budget, then we’ll pick it apart,” he said. “We’ll have a series of public hearings and we’re going to need more revenue. Don’t count on us to do anything different.”

Miner looked around the room.

“With all due respect, I appreciate the point that nobody wants to see public safety changed, but we have more computers systems and more police cars than we can shake a stick at,” he said, referring to the threatened Troop A and B barracks. “Another facility means more overhead and more administration. Do we really want more administration, or do we want somebody watching Smith’s house on a Thursday afternoon to make sure somebody doesn’t walk into the kitchen?”

The perpetuating cycle of increasing need and increasing costs are driving people out of Connecticut, Miner said. He pointed to the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Caucus that Case had left to attend.

“My heart bleeds for people with intellectual disability, but if we become the state that provides the best of the best, that drives up health care… There isn’t a person in this room that believes we should leave a disabled child without medical care but that comes with cost,” Miner said. “We have to find a way to control these costs.”

He took aim at education costs, too, and said that regionalization is necessary and legislators are willing to provide the tools to make it happen. Miner was one of a few speakers to suggest that preference and prejudice were keeping local schools from combining. Finally, he told the audience to go home and put away the lists of priorities.

Willis, a veteran representative like Miner, argued against dismissing the challenges of balancing needs and costs.

“Our frustration is sitting up here while people back in the district talk about reducing spending,” she said. “No one ever says how or where and the needs are great. The meeting that Rep. Case is going to now — we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars these advocates are asking for today and I see some here that need funding.

“I look around the room — the colleges need additional funding, particularly our community colleges are in harm’s way. I can go to the hospitals. To fix the provider fee, that’s $400 million. So when you start adding up what the people in this room are asking for, you’re talking billions.”

She named other causes represented by members of the audience, including marketing and tourism for the region — the third point on the NHCOG’s list of priorities — and town aid road grants, which the state eventually had to bond to pay for.

“The TAR money is now bonded… but it was a demand from our COGs and I asked ‘how do you feel about that?’ They said ‘we don’t care. We have to have it.’ Only one first selectman objected. The others said ‘go bond.’ The bottom line is it’s very hard for us. We’re getting mixed messages. We need your guidance… There are a lot of unmet needs at a time when there’s no money.”

Other legislators, too, asked for guidance, inviting the local officials and business leaders to contact them. Contact information for senators and representatives is available on their webpages.