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Newtown’s state delegation hosted a town hall meeting on May 10, just 18 hours after the 2018 Legislative Session closed in Hartford.
State Representatives Mitch Bolinsky, Will Duff, and J.P. Sredzinski, and State Senator Tony Hwang welcomed about two dozen of their constituents to the meeting room of C.H. Booth Library that Thursday evening. It was the first post-session town hall gathering, according to Mr Bolinsky, to take place in the state following the conclusion of the 2018 session.
Issues brought up during the 90-minute event included transportation, infrastructure, pensions, revenue, environmental concerns, and aging. Mr Bolinsky welcomed those in attendance.
“We’re here at this town hall,” he said, “to give you a summary of how we feel the legislative year went, and we’ll talk about a couple of issues that are going to be pretty darn important to Newtown.
Mr Hwang called the timing of the town hall gathering “poignant,” in that he and his counterparts had finished the Constitutionally mandated end of the legislative session at midnight.
The closing hours of the session, Sen Hwang pointed out, included a vote that approved a budget “which will provide some template that will affect our municipalities, affect our schools, affect programs that will impact our seniors, our community that’s affected in being vulnerable in the marketplace. We did do something positive, so I’m encouraged by that.”
Mr Sredzinski echoed the comments of Mr Bolinsky and Mr Hwang, saying he felt it was important to do something timely, even though it was nearly 3 am before he arrived at his home that morning.
He was pleased, he said, with the “huge accomplishment” of the bipartisan budget that had been passed and achieved “some very good things for Newtown.”
Municipal aid was restored to the budget, he said, following Gov Malloy’s cuts. Lawmakers also made it against the law, he added, for the governor to cut educational aid in the middle of the year. In the middle of the previous fiscal year, Gov Malloy had pulled back a lot of aid to municipalities, “which is completely unacceptable,” Mr Sredzinski said.
“Municipalities work really hard to set their budgets, as you know,” he said. “You go to referendum on it, and you make that decision. For the governor to say ‘I’m not going to give you as much,’ we felt was very wrong. It passed in a bipartisan way.
“I expect a veto on the bill,” he added, “because the governor doesn’t like anything that limits his authority, but I fully anticipate an override if it comes to that.”
The first question from the floor concerned infrastructure. Joe Dicristina asked whether residents could look forward to roads and bridges getting fixed.
“Our budget fully funds transportation projects as scheduled by the DOT,” was Mr Sredzinski’s response.
Mr Bolinsky said that the only project of major scope that had been a question mark was the Exit 11 interchange improvements.
“The only thing we were waiting for was us to appropriate,” he said, “and we have appropriated what will be a total of $43 billion over the course of the next many years.”
Mr Hwang said one of the things Republicans were able to instill into the budget was the idea of prioritizing projects.
“The Exit 11 project, that is so critical to the corridor; the Waterbury Mixmaster, that is so critical to our community’s vibrancy,” he said, “I would weigh that heavier than a project that builds a $980 million busway from New Britain to Hartford… If you look at the measure, there was about $250 million allocated for a new Bridgeport train station that was 1.8 miles from an existing Bridgeport train station, 3.4 miles from a brand new state of the art train station in Fairfield, and four miles from another one away in Stratford.
“That’s not a priority in my mind,” he said. Unsafe bridges need to be fixed; new train stations do not need to be built, he said.
“We all believe transportation is important,” Mr Sredzinski added, before pointing out that the budget sent to the governor’s desk this year does not include tolls. “They are coming back with tolls next year. That was stated from the floor last night during the closing minutes of the session. That fight’s not over.”
Tom Daniels brought up the issue of welfare.
“A lot of people,” said the Monroe resident, “don’t work and get money. I think those people need to do something, or get less money. I think we could save a lot of money that way.”
Mr Sredzinski, whose district includes Monroe, agreed, saying “We do spent a lot of general welfare. But the majority party would not budge on that.”
Will Duff said that one of the things that could be done would be “to find better efficiencies.
“You look at university system, and you’ve got multiple presidents,” he said, mentioning WestConn, Eastern, and UConn. “Each one has a press secretary. Then you have a sports department at WestConn, and they have a press secretary. The state university system has a press secretary.”
“Consolidation would certainly save a lot,” Mr Daniels said.
Mr Duff agreed, saying he has spoken with professors within the state system who have told him that the non-teaching administrative staff has doubled in size in the past three decades.
“Tenured professors are nearly one-third of what it used to be,” he said. “At the same time, we’ve seen student enrollment drop.”
Sandy Hook resident Michele McLeod also addressed the panel, telling them that she had found it very difficult to track the status of a bill she was interested in. She spent time following HB5367, “An Act Establishing A Working Group To Study Ways To Prevent Domestic Dog Attacks And Mitigate The Effects Of Animal Disposal Orders,” she said, and even went to Hartford less than 24 hours after learning that the bill had been added to the Senate calendar.
She waited most of the day to speak, and watched as out-of-state advocates were given their time, but felt rushed when it was her turn to say something at the end of the day. The final indignity was a pair of parking tickets on her vehicle when she finally returned to it that evening. She had been afraid to leave the floor, she said, for fear of completely losing her place in line to speak.
“I tried to present my thoughts, but got cut off,” Ms McLeod said. “I was testifying as a retired pediatric ophthalmologist, and as a current certified dog trainer. I’ve seen a lot of dog bites to children’s faces. They were awful, and they could have been prevented. Education is the way to prevent dog bites.”
Policy should be made, she said, with people who are familiar with dog behavior, “not based on Google research and knee-jerk reactions.”
Mr Hwang told her the town hall setting was the perfect place to bring that up.
“I can assure you,” he said, “this bill is foremost on my mind right now because of you coming here.”
Mr Sredzinski offered his apologies — “I know it was short notice, but if this happens again, contact one of us,” he told Ms McLeod — and his help.
“I will walk you through the process,” he promised.
Toward the end of the evening, Newtown resident Betsy Litt thanked the men for their time and work.
“It does my heart good to hear you guys talk about the amount of compromise that went into passing the budget,” she told them.
She did voice a concern about how increasingly partisan things seem to be becoming in Hartford, however. She is worried things are becoming more like the nation’s capital, and wondered what the local politicians are doing to reach across the divide, she told them.
Mr Duff, the freshman member of the group, agreed to an extent.
“When I first walked into that building,” he said, “it seemed like everything to the left is Democrat and everything to the right is Republican, and never the two shall meet. It’s virtually even.
“What I’ve done is reach out to the other side. I’ve made a point to be a part of their caucuses,” he said, “to let them know that I’m not that evil monster. I can also be an asset to them. If there is common ground, I want to know about it.”
Mr Bolinsky said a lot of his work is about building bridges.
“Not since my freshman year have I introduced any legislation without having a partner,” he told Ms Litt. “I think all of us have a circle of friends that transcends the politics.”
Newtown Legislative Council member Ryan Knapp was the final constituent to address the state group that evening.
“I’ve been following the state budget process for a few years,” he said, “because it affects a couple million dollars of our municipal revenue.”
He said that, while earlier comments about the appearance of partisanship can be worrisome, the results of recent bipartisan efforts have been “incredibly encouraging.”
After years of budgets being done behind closed doors, with no input from “the other side at all,” he added, “last year, we saw a minority party budget pass, which was incredible.”