Litchfield County legislators propose dozens of bills [Register Citizen]

March 4, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Register Citizen

While legislators in Connecticut are collectively facing a huge headache — paring down the state’s budget — it’s not the only thing on their minds.

Local legislators have proposed a host of bills — from 13 to 75 each — on a myriad of topics and are now hoping to shepherd their projects and priorities through the process of seeing those bills become law before the session ends June 3.

Each of Litchfield County’s legislators had the opportunity to propose new bills in January in response to needs in their communities, requests from constituents and personal convictions. The topics range from seemingly random (an ordinance concerning the harvesting of oysters that are 2 1/2 inches in length) to municipal concerns like restoration of the Housatonic Railroad, a means to allow Norfolk and Colebrook to consolidate their schools and funding for local projects.

State Rep. Jay Case, R-63, showed the most continuity in subject matter of his bills but said that though he’s “a human service person,” interested in caring for the needs of Connecticut’s most vulnerable populations, the impetus for his bills comes from constituents.

“Over the year, I’ve kept track of the needs, the calls that come into the legislature,” Case said. “The bills I’m proposing help constituents at the least cost to the state of Connecticut. My bills really don’t have a cost factor to them because given the fiscal situation, if we keep trying to propose bills that cost money, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Case named a bill allowing people seeking substance abuse treatment to be seen whether or not they’re intoxicated at the time, another bringing Connecticut in line with federal standards mandating a ratio of one school social worker per 250 students and a bill dealing with fire safety in buildings with solar panels among his priorities.

State Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-8, named keeping costs down for municipalities and residents as top of his list. Witkos co-sponsored a bill requiring unfunded mandates to pass with a two-thirds majority vote — something local officials have been calling for.

“We hear all the time from boards of education, boards of selectmen — stop passing unfunded mandates because that just raises our taxes. I think we should raise the bar a little bit to pass unfunded mandates,” Witkos said.

Creating housing for public safety officers, inspired by a need up in Goshen, creating an independent office of the inspector general to combat government fraud and waste and making a way for the use of experimental drugs among terminally ill patients are other priorities for Witkos.

Balancing the budget and the needs of constituents is a consuming issue, though.

“With this budget we are already getting emails and phone calls at the office,” he said. “It’s going to be a difficult task to try to balance the needs of everybody. There is only so much money and if we were to fully fund the budget — with a billion dollar hole — we’d have to raise taxes a billion dollars and I’m not willing to do that, so we need to roll up our sleeves and find places to cut without impacting most vulnerable populations.”

For state Sen. Clark Chapin, R-30, who sits on the Appropriations Committee and proposed just 13 bills, budgeting is the main priority and the focus of long days and nights.

“There are a number of potential budget cuts the governor has proposed that I’m hearing about the importance of restoring that funding, anywheres from what the towns have to pay for resident state troopers, youth service bureaus, the fire training school and the culture and arts programs,” Chapin said Monday, as he headed into a public hearing for which 100 people had signed up to offer testimony. “Those are budget areas that people care about who live in the 30th District. I have said we will do what we can to restore some of that funding.”

Here’s an overview of some of Litchfield County legislators’ proposed bills from the 2015 session:
State Rep. Craig Miner, D-66, proposed 69 bills, many of which aim to cut state waste, such as cutting grants through the Citizens Election Program by 25 percent, random drug testing for state aid recipients with previous infractions, increasing the number of Medicaid fraud investigators and requiring monthly appearances for unemployment compensation recipients. He also proposed HB 5677, to provide boards of education with the authority to control the kind of information students can access on electronic and mobile devices while at school.

Many of Miner’s bills were co-sponsored with state Reps. Themis Klarides, Vincent J. Candelora, Laura R. Hoydick and Arthur J. O’Neill.

Of specific importance to the region, Miner proposed providing a cost-of-living increase in towns’ Education Cost Sharing grants and Bill 6509, which would allow the towns of Norfolk and Colebrook to form a regional school district for preschool through grade 6.

Jay Case proposed 13 House bills and co-sponsored three Senate bills, most of which concerned health and human services such as substance abuse and mental health treatment, supportive housing for disabled, regulating e-cigarettes and prohibiting shooting animals.

Specifically, Case champions HB 5058 to prohibit licensed substance abuse treatment facilities from limiting admission or treatment only to persons currently under the influence of alcohol or drugs and HB 297 to require health care providers to accept all private insurance plans for mental health services provided to young adults.

Case also takes on the prevailing wage and proposes phasing out the hospital tax, an important issue for the area.

Michelle Cook, D-65, proposed 22 House bills and was party to three Senate bills, many of which concern health care.

Cook proposed mandating newborn screening for cytomegalovirus and bills regarding medicaid-funded home health care, continuing education for providers who prescribe narcotics, chronic disease, dyslexia, electronic cigarettes and sober homes.

She also has raised an act to allow Norfolk and Colebrook to form a regional school district and, along with three other state representatives and one state senator, filed a bill to grant an extension for Region 12 to submit a construction application for Shepaug Valley School and that the reimbursement rate for the project be 95 percent.

State Rep. Roberta Willis, D-64, introduced 13 bills and was party to four Senate bills.

They range in subject from EMTs, Medicaid provider audits, phasing out the hospital tax, smoking in motor vehicles and early childhood collaboratives to HB 5687 to designate a portion of the Housatonic River as a wild and scenic river system and 5718, banning the sale of elephant ivory and rhinoceros horns.

Important to the district, Willis also raised HB 6343, “to restore passenger service and improve the conditions on the rail line for continuing and existing freight service on the Housatonic rail line.”
State Sen. Clark Chapin has raised 22 bills, including several related to fire safety and fire marshal inspections, which he said were sparked by noncompliance, election regulations and phasing out the hospital tax.

He, along with Sen. Kevin Witkos, proposed SB 196 to name Route 272 in Torrington in honor of Richard W. Nardine. He and Case jointly proposed SB 360 to allow for certain herd sharing within the production of milk and raw milk and the manufacture of cheese products for personal or family consumption.

Finally, Chapin proposed a bill, SB 495 to allocate $350,000 for a feasibility study looking into restoration and operating costs and ridership potential for restoring passenger train service along the existing line from Danbury to the Massachusetts border.

State Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-69, raised 75 bills, including the resolution requiring a two-thirds vote to approve mandates on municipalities and school districts (HJ 19), which he co-sponsored with state Rep. Pam Staneski.

To address the issue of declining enrollment and its effects on school districts, O’Neill proposes HB 5552 to require the Department of Education to study declining student enrollment in school districts and the feasibility of expanding or merging existing regional school districts.

He also proposed HB 5553 to allow for action to be taken at regional board of education meeting, and bills aimed at scholarships for women in STEM fields, improving child support collection and expediting tax foreclosures. He also co-sponsors the Shepaug Valley School bills and several bills with Miner aimed at cutting state assistance fraud.

State Rep. Cecilia Buck-Taylor, R-67, raised 23 bills, including her own version of the two-thirds vote requirement for mandates, an act to create a defined contribution pension plan for new state employees. She also proposed HB 5012, which would amend the minimum budget requirement by increasing the amount that a school district may reduce its budget appropriations to allow for savings through intradistrict efficiencies.

She proposed bills to expand ridership on Connecticut’s commuter rails and expanding fraud detection and prevention efforts in social services programs as well as other varied topics.

State Rep. John Piscopo, R-76, proposed 24 bills on a variety of subjects, including an act concerning the constitutional spending cap, limiting the approval of new charter schools, eliminating the Citizens’ Election Program (HB 5049) and seven relating to the prevailing wage.

Piscopo’s HB 6175 would require the office of the Secretary of the State to make enhancements to the State’s Internet Concord System in order to allow for more business transparency. HB 5917 would require a police department hiring a new police officer less than four years out of training to reimburse the sending department the cost for training and certifying the officer.

Piscopo also proposes three bills that would directly benefit Thomaston: HB 5005, which authorizes bonding of not more than $1 million for the renovation of the Railroad Museum of New England; HB 5094 authorizing the construction of a water line in the town of Thomaston on Jackson Street; and HB 5976, which authorizes bonding $5.2 million for a grant to renovate the Thomaston Opera House.

State Sen. Kevin Witkos proposed 74 Senate bills and co-sponsored five House bills, including a version of the two-thirds majority for new mandates proposal, HB 5138 prohibiting the use of students’ mastery test results in an individual teacher’s performance evaluation and HB 6709 to allow eligible patients to try experimental drugs.

He also raised SB 31, establishing a bear hunting permit program, SB 92, to recalculate the minimum budget requirement for school districts with declining enrollment, SB 58 to allow state income tax relief to people working two jobs and a host of other subjects. Witkos proposed in Senate Bill 96, to authorize $5.4 million for a municipal facility in Canton.

Several of Witkos’ bills relate to health and insurance issues, education, tax credits for municipalities, election regulations and public safety.

The state legislative session adjourns June 3, by which time a successful bill must make its way through public hearing and out of committee and be raised for a passing vote.

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