Democrats in the state Senate Friday announced a robust racial justice agenda they hope to tackle in an upcoming special session of the legislature. From education to health care to housing, they have proposed numerous reforms that seek to address the deep-rooted inequalities that the coronavirus pandemic and recent police violence protests have drawn renewed attention to. Gov. Ned Lamont said those “complex and difficult” problems must be addressed, but suggested lawmakers act next year rather than this summer.
Senate Democrats release racial justice agenda: While the General Assembly plans to meet in special session next month to vote on police accountability legislation, Senate Democrats want lawmakers to take up a much broader agenda that seeks to address the longstanding issues of racial and economic inequality. At a news conference Friday, they outlined proposals that included increased job training for students, additional support for and recruitment of minority teachers, support for minority-owned businesses, increased availability of affordable housing and health care reforms. “Our message to the people of Connecticut is simple: we hear you and we will take action,” Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney said. Sen. Doug McCrory of Hartford said he is against “Novocain legislation” that feels good at the time but does not solve long-running systemic problems. But soon after the robust agenda was announced, Lamont said he’d prefer those issues are addressed in the next regular session of the legislature — beginning in January — rather than this summer. He has said he wants to limit the July special session to specific police accountability legislation and expanding access to absentee ballots.
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Republicans sue over absentee ballot expansion: Two Republican lawmakers are among those who have filed a lawsuit to block Secretary of the State Denise Merrill’s plan to allow people fearful of contracting COVID-19 to vote by absentee ballot in the November election. The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in New Britain with plaintiffs including Rep. Jason Perillo of Shelton and Sen. Eric Berthel of Watertown, says expanding absentee ballot usage will lead to more instances of fraud and irregularities and that Merrill is overstepping her authority. But Merrill countered that if no changes are made to the state’s restrictive absentee ballot regulations than voters will have to decide between their health and voting. “This suit would force people with serious health conditions to come to a polling place in person, despite the CDC warning that their health conditions increase their risk of COVID-19,” she said. The General Assembly may address the issue in the upcoming special session.
Funding approved for tuition-free community college: The state’s dozen community colleges will be tuition-free for qualified in-state students this fall, but the program needs additional funding if it is to continue into the spring semester and beyond. The Board of Regents for Higher Education Thursday approved $3 million in one-time funding to cover grants for the fall semester. “We look forward to working with our legislative partners to find a permanent solution,” said David Levinson, interim president of Connecticut State Community College. When the legislature approved tuition-free community college, they planned on funding it with proceeds from a new online lottery. But that lottery has yet to launch. Applications for the fall semester must be submitted by July 15. To qualify, students must have graduated from a Connecticut high school, be a first-time college student, attend classes full time and remain in good academic standing.
Lamont open to selling wine in grocery stores: Connecticut’s archaic liquor laws are historically difficult to change, but Lamont voiced support this week for allowing the state’s wineries to sell their products in grocery stores alongside Connecticut-made craft beer. He made the remarks during a tour of the Jonathan Edwards Winery in North Stonington. “Let me talk to the legislature about that, see where they are,” Lamont said Thursday. “I know many other states have done that already.” No legislation has been proposed to make the change, and any effort by the General Assembly to take up the matter is likely to face fierce opposition from the state’s strong package story lobby. Carroll J. Hughes, the head of the Connecticut Package Store Association, said wine is best suited for smaller package stores, where sections can be set aside for Connecticut-made products and where workers can give expert advice and recommend local wines.
Towns declare racism a public health crisis: Connecticut cities and towns are joining those across the country that have passed resolutions declaring racism a public health crisis and outlining steps to address inequities in their communities. Windsor became the first town in the state to pass such a resolution, doing so at their council meeting on Monday. Sen. Saud Anwar, a Windsor Democrat and physician who has asked Lamont to issue a statewide declaration, said depression, anxiety, hypertension and a variety of other health problems are more common with people who deal with racial bias and discrimination. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare those health disparities, he said. The Hartford City Council is expected to take up the issue Monday. “Racism and segregation have exacerbated a health divide resulting in people of color in Connecticut bearing a disproportionate burden of illness and mortality,” the resolution reads. It calls on establishing clear goals and objectives to change that.
Columbus statutes coming down: Statutes of Christopher Columbus have begun coming down across Connecticut, part of a nationwide movement to shift attention away from the Italian explorer who discovered the New World but whose legacy also includes the enslavement and subjugation of indigenous people. The conversation over Columbus’ place in history and whether it’s appropriate to honor him has been ongoing for years, but the issue has gained new attention amid the racial justice protests that followed the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. New Haven and New London officials have voted to remove their Columbus statutes. Hartford plans to do the same. A statute in Middletown was removed to prevent it from being vandalized while the city decides what to do with it. “The fraught debate over Christopher Columbus’s legacy is one that’s important to have in Middletown (and everywhere),” Mayor Ben Florsheim wrote on Facebook.
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U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes is criticizing a recent U.S. Department of Education decision that a Connecticut policy allowing transgender girls to compete in girls high school sports violates Title IX. “The decision of the Department of Education to issue a determination targeting transgender student athletes on the eve of Pride Month is not coincidental,” Hayes, a member of the House Education Committee, said. “It is a transparent example of their campaign against the rights and dignity of LGBTQ+ children.” The Department of Education has said funding could be withheld from Connecticut schools if the policy is not changed. ... UConn President Thomas Katsouleaswrote in a letter to university employees Wednesday that UConn anticipates a budget deficit of more than $50 million in the coming year and asked employees for “assistance” in closing that gap. The letter comes after Lamont said negotiations with state employee unions to forgo $150 million in upcoming raises stalled. Katsouleas said he was committed to employees receiving their raises and did not specify what other concessions he was looking for. Talks between university administrators and the unions that represent UConn employees are ongoing. ... State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme,drew an unusually sharp retort from a top labor official earlier this month after she published an op-ed in The Day newspaper of New London critical of the state’s efforts to process the torrent of unemployment applications filed as the coronavirus forced businesses to shut down. Danté Bartolomeo, the deputy labor commissioner and a former Democratic state senator, accused Cheeseman of attempting to “purposefully and dangerously malign” the department. “In what universe is questioning, criticizing and asking a government agency for answers dangerous?” Cheeseman told Courant columnist Jon Lender. … Hartford State’s Attorney Gail P. Hardyhas been suspended for four days by the state Criminal Justice Commission for her failure to completely four deadly police shooting investigations in a timely manner. One report took more than a decade to complete and was finished only after The Courant published a story questioning the delay. The commission will consider this week whether to reappoint Hardy to another eight-year term as the Hartford Judicial District’s top prosecutor. … Connecticut Attorney General William Tong joined 38 of his colleagues across the country in a letter to tech giants Apple and Google asking questions about coronavirus contact tracing apps available for download through their platforms and whether consumers’ personal information would be adequately protected. “Contact tracing apps have a critical role to play in controlling the spread of COVID-19, but corporations must ensure this technology is not abused,” Tong said. The attorneys general specifically mentioned free apps that are available but not affiliated with public health authorities. Connecticut has contracted with Microsoft for its contact tracing program, working in collaboration with local health departments.