State leaders weigh agenda

Mental health services, early childhood education and a minimum wage bump are three issues that could see legislative attention in the next session of the Connecticut General Assembly, two state legislators said Monday evening.

Connecticut State Sen. Martin Looney and State Rep. Roland Lemar joined members of the Yale College Democrats to debrief on the 2013 municipal elections and preview the state’s upcoming work, asking for continued student input as they prepare to return to Hartford next February. Adjustments to the current biennial budget will drive the legislative agenda, Looney said. However, he added that midyear changes could afford the opportunity for a number of public policy initiatives with major impacts in New Haven and across the state.

Looney invoked the Newtown shooting — the first anniversary of which looms less than a month away — and said the state remains committed to broadening mental health services, particularly for children.

“Children’s mental health is not what it should be in Connecticut,” he said. “Many severe psychological problems manifest themselves at a very early age, and developing ways for kids to get access to a clinician or a professional outside of the school system remains a challenge for us.”

Looney said the state began addressing mental health in the comprehensive bill passed this April in response to the Newtown shooting, which also tightened gun control and contained provisions to strengthen security in Connecticut schools.

Administrative hurdles prevent children from getting the mental health assistance they need, Looney said, adding that co-pays on services tend to be higher for young children. He said many physicians only treat people over 12 or 13 years of age.

Lemar said legislation aimed at addressing the state’s widening achievement gap could also see attention from the state government next year.

“A lot of legislators want to do something this coming session to find a way to fund and implement early education across the board,” he said, part of which includes simplifying the process of school enrollment. “Parents should be able to say, ‘I want my kid to go to school tomorrow — where can they go?’”

Lemar said he thinks the state could also take further strides in increasing the minimum wage, which will rise to $9 per hour starting in 2015. Citing President Barack Obama’s embrace of a national $10 minimum wage, Lemar said Connecticut could take the lead and be one of the first states to meet that target.

In response to a question posed by Dems president Nicole Hobbs ’14, Looney and Lemar said they foresee only minor tweaks to the state’s health care provisions following the nationwide rollout of the Affordable Care Act. They dismissed the prospect of a special legislative session to craft law protecting state residents’ current insurance plans, a move their colleague, gubernatorial candidate and Connecticut State Sen. John McKinney, said is necessary due to national confusion over the implementation of the health care mandate.

“Connecticut’s exchange is actually working quite well,” Looney said. “It’s being used as a national model.”

Responding to a report issued this week by the legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal office that predicts more than $1.1 billion in state deficits for three straight years beginning in 2016, Looney said the General Assembly will have to look into further cost savings if the economic recovery remains sluggish.

He said one enduring drag on the state’s finances that could be eased is Connecticut’s oversized corrections budget. The state’s prison population tripled between 1980 and 2007, which he said has led to massive criminal justice expenditures. Removing incarcerated individuals from prison and putting them into supervised release programs would allow the state to reinvest that money into programs that would otherwise be on the chopping block should projected deficits come to pass.

“When you have [a] $1.1 billion deficit, it hurts the most vulnerable,” Lemar said. “One way to ease that impact is to change the income tax structure to have higher rates for higher-income earners.”

Both lawmakers said they were looking forward to collaborating with mayor-elect Toni Harp ARC ’78 once she takes office this January. Because of her own experience as a state senator, Lemar said, she will know how to set priorities and leverage relationships in Hartford to win state support for New Haven.

Looney said opening up a second garage at Union Station and procuring funds for the Coliseum redevelopment project are two of Harp’s immediate priorities that will be furthered by her clout at the state capitol.

“We trust her,” Lemar said.

Looney has served as majority leader of the state senate since 2004.

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