By Wayne Jebian
As the General Assembly kicks off its 2013 session today, Latino legislators are committed to keeping education in the forefront, as well as social services and small business jobs creation.
“What happens up in the legislature is that we pass a lot of stuff, and then we move on to the next year and we kinda forget about the good things we passed in the previous year and don’t follow up on it,” warned state Rep. Jason Rojas (D. East Hartford). “Implementation is the key to everything, and it’s not always correctly done, and that’s why we continue to have to focus on the same issues year after year.”
“My district is the third poorest in the state of Connecticut,” said state Rep. Robert Sanchez (D-New Britain), “and usually when they talk about budget cuts and spending cuts, it’s cuts to nonprofit organizations, it’s cuts to cash assistance programs for people, for the poor.”
“The budget is probably the most important ongoing issue for the state,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams. “We’ll be putting together a two-year budget in this session. That process begins in earnest in February, when the governor submits a proposed budget to the General Assembly.”
Incoming freshman state Rep. Hilda Santiago (D-Meriden) feels that improvements in the Department of Social Services are long overdue. “I know the DSS is going through a transition with the new commissioner,” she said, “but there are things that need to go faster that are just taking too long.”
The same constituencies most affected by social service cuts also have the most at stake when it comes to passing job-growth legislation. “Unfortunately, the economy has not turned around as we had hoped,” lamented freshman state Sen. Andres Ayala (D-Bridgeport). “For small Latino businesses to create jobs, it’s all about having access to capital. We’ve got to be able to create the opportunities that are viable and that they are able to grow.”
According to Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney (D-New Haven), the leadership is on this same page and looking to continue to provide capital to businesses through the Small Business Express program. Recently, the legislature also expanded the “Step Up” program, which provides hiring incentives.
These initiatives were passed as part of the 2011/2012 jobs package, and, like much of the legislation from recent sessions, it requires ongoing attention by lawmakers to ensure its effectiveness.
Latino lawmakers are united in their commitment to ensuring that the work on education from the prior session is not only implemented, but improved and fine tuned. “We passed a whole host of education reform initiatives that we worked really, really hard on,” said Ayala, who served three terms in the House before being elected to the Senate. “I think we need to keep a close eye as to how those reforms are panning out. Are those initiatives working? Are they on track?”
Rojas offered up some specifics: “It’s looking at the turnaround schools in the alliance districts, and making sure that we really pay attention to the progress that’s being made there, to determine if that’s really the best model for reform.”
While everyone expected that the measures passed last year would keep education near center stage this year, what no one had expected was the sudden re-emergence of gun-related issues. The Dec. 14 mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School have made gun violence a universal concern that had until recently been limited to a few urban areas like Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport.
“Whoever you talk to has guns on their mind,” said Ayala. “Without a shadow of a doubt, we’re going to see something in regard to the Newtown Tragedy.”
Looney pointed out that while some legislators have long spoken out on gun control, the results this session will likely be different. He said, “Some of the gun regulation initiatives that had been proposed in prior years may come back with additional momentum; for example, a ban on the sale and possession of large-capacity magazines, also, adding some additional weapons like the Bushmaster semiautomatic assault rifle to the list.”
“I would hope that guns are on the agenda,” said Sanchez. “I am not an anti-gun person. I truly believe in the Second Amendment, but assault rifles … really, people shouldn’t have those types of weapons in the first place.”