Friday, December 18, 2009

Connecticut Jobs Now: Action to create jobs for Connecticut workers.

Our state needs strong action to create jobs. This is exactly what I have been advocating already, by pressing for proposals during the regular legislative session in 2009 ranging from green jobs to funding for construction jobs.

Since then, our economic slump has dragged on, with our state unemployment at 8.8% - the worst since the 1970s.  Action to create jobs is needed now.

That is why I joined with Sen. Donald DeFronzo today in announcing a "Connecticut Jobs Now" initiative (PDF):
State Representative Tim O’Brien (D-New Britain, Newington) today joined a coalition of lawmakers calling on Governor Rell’s administration to take action that would create more than 16,000 jobs by investing in Connecticut’s aging infrastructure.

“As I have gone door to door in our community, people have told me over and over that they need jobs,” Rep. O’Brien said. “The leadership of our state has a responsibility to get people to work earning paychecks and to get our economy moving again.”

“The Connecticut Jobs Now plan would create thousands of jobs and help many businesses - getting our economy moving again. It is the right thing to do and I hope the Governor agrees,” Rep. O’Brien said.

Rep. O’Brien credited Senator Donald DeFronzo (D- New Britain) for his work in creating and promoting the plan which can be fully implemented by the Governor’s administration without further legislative action.

The key to the Connecticut Jobs Now plan calls for $1 billion in state bonding on transportation infrastructure, housing, energy conservation, clean water and higher education projects.

The plan funds only those projects that were previously authorized which could be implemented within 90 to 120 days.

“This is a call for action,” Rep. O’Brien added, “More importantly, the plan creates jobs and puts people back to work.”
This is not a new concept. One of the best things public officials can do to help an ailing economy and create jobs is to support public construction. It is especially true now, since a quarter of our state's construction workers are unemployed.

By putting construction workers back on the job, they and their families will be able to pay bills and shop at stores - creating jobs and helping businesses in other parts of our state economy.

This makes good sense.  And we, in the legislature, have already provided the bond authorization to do it, so there should be no roadblocks to getting it done.

Connecticut Jobs Now can be the core of the recovery of our state's economy.  But action by the Governor is needed - now.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Busy morning speaks to important priorities, like health care and education.

This morning was one of those times, as a state legislator, when I had to try to be in three places at the same time.  This is pretty common, but this morning's events struck me in that they touch on some very important values – like health care and education – the support for which is in real question in the difficult budget debate underway right now.

One event was a visit to the Cedarcrest Hospital in Newington, which is a state mental health facility that Gov. Rell's administration is trying to shut down.  Many people have real concerns her decision to remove these important services will result in people with significant mental health needs falling through the cracks and into desperate situations without the help they need.

On top of this, Gov. Rell is proposing deep cuts to nursing homes and hospitals.  Nursing homes have already been reeling – closing down and reducing staff because of years of funding that has not kept up with rising costs.  Now, Gov. Rell proposes a devastating blow to them.

Meanwhile, hospitals, which are struggling because, in the bad economy, more people without health insurance need their services.  Gov. Rell's cuts would seriously damage hospitals at just a time when we really need them.

Another important event was a meeting at New Britain General Hospital between local early childhood education advocates and the Graustein Memorial Fund.  The Graustein Fund has made a very significant commitment of funds to the program that I wrote about earlier, directed at improving education, well-being and prospects in life for very young children.

The problem is that the funding from the Graustein Fund is matching funding and it depends on the state keeping its own funding commitment.  That is why it is so unfortunate that Gov. Rell's plans call for cutting this important matching funds.  Gov. Rell's plan would cut a good number of things that benefit children like the Children's Trust Fund, early childhood education services, pre-natal services, after school programming, libraries and more.

There is a lot of unfortunate rhetoric that has been thrown around in the budget debate.  For example, Democrats in the state legislature have made billions of dollars of cuts in the state budget – many difficult cuts – but Gov. Rell and fellow Republicans keep falsely saying that there have not been budget cuts.

Just as bad is rhetoric that talks about budget frugality in pithy political terms in  sound bites on the evening news, but ignores the importance of the services that, in the real world, that are being cut and the harm caused when they are gone or greatly reduced.

We need leadership in our state that rises above this and helps us to approve a budget that balances the budget, not just in dollars and cents, but in the values we all should share.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Hearing on Gov. Rell's budget proposal set for December 9th.

Since people have been asking me about having an opportunity to comment on Gov. Rell's plans for cuts in the state budget, I wanted to pass on the news that the legislature's Appropriations Committee will be holding a hearing on the proposal.

The hearing will be on Wednesday, December 9th at 2pm in hearing room 2C of the Legislative Office Building, next to the State Capitol in Hartford.  Click here to find directions to the State Capitol.

You can click here to see a summary of the Gov. Rell is proposing.  To see a more complete listing of her plan, including cuts she already made herself, click here.

The hearing will be chaired by New Britain's own Rep. John Geragosian, who also formerly represented Newington.  Rep. Geragosian is the State House Chair of the important Appropriations Committee.

If you are interested in testifying, I am told that you will need to sign-up the day before the hearing (Tuesday, December 8th).  The exact order that people will be able to speak will be decided at random.  I will add to this post if I hear any further information.

Update December 3, 2009, 10:53pm:
Here is some more complete information on how to testify at the hearing, which also corrects what I previously posted:  "If you are interested in testifying, you will have to sign-up to testify by appearing in person in room 2700 of the Legislative office Building and draw a lottery number to determine when you will speak. Sign-ups begin at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 12/8 and will conclude at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 12/9. if you cannot appear in person to sign-up, you may have a representative sign you up on your behalf. If you or a representative cannot sign-up by 10 a.m. on Wednesday, you can still testify by appearing in person, and your name will be added to the list."

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Local planning report shows change needed to improve opportunities for young children.

A well-done report showing the need to improve education for young children  in New Britain will be released tonight at the Vance Village School.

The Leadership Work Group, a project of the New Britain Discovery Collaborative is releasing the report, "Blueprint for Improving The Lives of New Britain’s Young Children Birth Through 3rd Grade".  This report is very thorough, and the parents and other community participants, especially Merrill Gay of the Discovery Collaborative, deserve thanks for their hard work in getting it done.

The report focuses on improving the education and well-being of children from birth to the third grade, based on evidence showing that children who fall behind by the third grade are more likely to have difficulty in many ways the rest of their lives.  It has been shown that maintaining a child's well-being and educational opportunity in every one of these first years of life is critical for a lifetime of successful learning and achievement.

The report show that the challenges facing New Britain's children are great.  Here are just a few troubling statistics (from the report):
  • 36% of third graders read at grade level, the 2nd lowest level in the state
  • 15-20% of children have insufficient language, literacy and numeracy skills when they arrive at kindergarten
  • Only 10% of children starting kindergarten in 2008 were rated fully ready by their teachers
  • 39% of children starting kindergarten in 2008 were perceived by their teachers to not be ready
  • 21% of children arrive at kindergarten with no preschool experience
And the report discusses how other factors, such as these, lead to poor academic opportunities for children:
  • poverty among New Britain children is great - 62.7% of children are eligible for free or reduced price meals at school
  • 300 children are on the waiting list for infant/toddler childcare
  • 9.8% of babies are born at less than 5.5 lbs., exceeding the state average of 8%
  • 16% of babies are born to teen mothers, more than double the state average of 6.5%
  • 37% of pregnant women do not receive adequate prenatal care
  • Obesity rates among young children are rapidly increasing: 19.4% of 4 year olds are obese, 18.1% of 3 year olds are obese
  • The 63% of children who rely on HUSKY face significant barriers in accessing any type of specialty care
  • Despite improvement in preventive dental care, access to restorative dental care remains very limited
The report breaks down the problem confronting New Britain children and families into a series of indicators for improvement...
A. Reducing the number of Low Birthweight Babies
B. Increasing the number of Mothers with a High School Diploma
C. Reducing the rate of Obesity in 3 and 4 year old Children
D. Increasing the number of Children Ready for Kindergarten
E. Increasing the number of Children Reading at Grade Level
...and then the report proposes concrete strategies to improve the quality of life and educational opportunities for kids in those key areas.

In certain important ways, the report is very timely.  Gov. Rell has just proposed a "Deficit Mitigation Plan" that proposes cuts to a number of important services that benefit the people of the state.  Some of those cuts would reduce exactly the things that this report shows need to be improved.

For example, the report cites how important it is to have state funded programs to reach out to expectant parents and link them with key services to ensure that they have healthy babies.  But Gov. Rell's newest budget proposal would cut funding for the Children's Trust Fund, which supports exactly those services in New Britain.  Gov. Rell's budget proposal would also cut funding for child day care and teen pregnancy prevention, two other things the report says need better state support in New Britain.

So this report shows why Gov. Rell's budget plans are unfair for the people of New Britain.  Clearly, we need a better plan than this so that the state budget is balanced, not just in dollars and cents, but balanced in the values we should uphold.

The report takes things a step further by clearly laying-out the reasons for some of the key things I have been fighting for at the state Capitol, for example,
  • Education funding.  I have been pressing for significant increases in state funding for our local schools - and I and the other New Britain legislators have won millions of dollars of increased education aid for New Britain.   But, there is much more that needs to be done.  For example, the report points out that kindergarten classrooms should have education paraprofessional - something held up by budget constraints. As I have been pointing out at the State Capitol, Gov. Rell's own education funding task force recommended that New Britain should receive an increase of $30 million a year in education aid (and similar increases for other big cities) to provide an equitable education for New Britain's kids.  Another group, CCJEF, produced a study that says that the increase for New Britain should actually be $88 million a year.  That is why, while we have won millions of dollars of increased state aid for our local schools, I continue to fight hard for more.
  • More pre-school classrooms.  I am proud that we won, in the State Legislature, significant increases in the number of early childhood education classrooms for New Britain kids in the past few years.  But, as the report points out, there are more than three hundred children who still need access to pre-school classrooms.  Completing this work is a high priority for me.
  • Pre-School teacher pay.  Increasing the number of early childhood classrooms in New Britain was a real achievement.  But today's blue-print report shows that a major obstacle for young children is the need for their pre-school teachers to be better trained.  The problem is that pre-school (day care) staff are generally so poorly paid that, to provide for their own families, they tend to quickly leave for better paying jobs.  This leaves little time for professional development to turn them into highly skilled pre-school teachers.  The solution is simple, but expensive - pre-school teachers need to be paid better - much better.  As helpful as Gov. Rell's administration has been in expanding early childhood education classrooms, she has not really addressed the pre-school teacher pay issue - which is nearly as critical as expanding pre-school classroom spaces.
Of course, the issue with all of these is finding money for them in the State Budget.  That is where the priorities of the person who holds the office of Governor need to change.

For being one of the wealthiest states, Connecticut has some of the most intense inequality in the nation and has one of the more frugal state governments (as a UConn study has shown).  The result of this is that there is little funding available as I and other legislators advocate for education and other services, like those the blue-print report calls for, and well as for reforms to lower unfair property taxes and similar inequalities.

As a legislator representing a district that includes middle class and poorer people and families, it is frustrating to watch the combination of a Governor  and state legislators, who are from wealthy communities, blocking efforts to make the budget priorities of the state fairer for the middle class and poor.

One of the reasons the "Blueprint for Improving The Lives of New Britain’s Young Children Birth Through 3rd Grade" is important and valuable is how clearly it lays out why certain funding priorities are important for the most important and vulnerable members of our community - the youngest.

Making the goals of this report a reality will take a lot of hard work.  I plan to use the good work that went into this report to continue my efforts to build a stronger community.