It is a time of change at 18-20 Trinity Street where the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission is closing shop as one of six legislative advisory departments that are being disbanded to help resolve a billion dollar state budget shortfall.
The space now will be occupied by the Commission on Equity and Opportunity (CEO), a new legislative body that combines LPRAC with the African-American and Asian Pacific affairs commissions.
The changeover officially takes place with the start of the 2017 state fiscal year on July 1 and LPRAC’s records and reports are being packed and shipped to the state archives.
For the state’s Latinos seeking to improve their economic and social status, the impact of losing a commission that in recent years had spearheaded numerous programs and legislative initiatives, such as expanding bilingual education, and focused almost exclusively on their needs is something that will be closely watched.
“We have to see how things play out,” said state Rep. Christopher Rosario. “If we see that we are taking steps backwards then members of the Black and Puerto Rican caucus have to see what the next steps are to help address any issues that aren’t being addressed,” the Bridgeport Democrat added.
The merger of LPRAC and five other legislative commissions into two broader commissions, one devoted to the state’s minority populations and the other covering women, children and seniors, represents a relatively small step in the road to putting the state on a sounder financial footing. These consolidations will slice approximately $300,000 from the state’s 2017 spending plan, which totals about $19.8 billion, and will eliminate a couple of jobs at a time when hundreds of state employees are being laid off.
However, for now, the impact of this change is blunted somewhat by the new commission hiring three members of the four-person LPRAC staff. These include longtime executive director Werner Oyanadel who has begun work as a commission analyst focusing on “equity and opportunity” for the state’s Latino population.
Moreover, the preliminary plans for the CEO include continuing many of LPRAC’s individual projects, such as its scholarship and veterans programs.
“The work of LPRAC and the other commissions made a tremendous impact, especially in the Latino community,” said state Rep. Christopher Rosario of Bridgeport, a Democrat running for re-election.
“LPRAC was a great tool for the legislature to have,” Emanuela Palmares, a Danbury Republican who is a member of the bipartisan commission’s board. “For some members of the community it felt easier to approach us than legislators,” said the Brazilian-American, who will sit on the 63-person CEO board at least until her LPRAC term would have ended.
The new commission’s executive director, Subira Gordon, comes to her new assignment after several years as an analyst for the African-American Affairs Commission, has indicated a desire to maintain continuity where possible.
In addition, Gordon, who also has worked with House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, said one of her goals “is to bring the legislative process to the people.”
Another indicator of what direction the CEO will take is that the implementing of legislation requires the commission to focus on issues affecting the state’s under-represented and underserved African Americans, Asian-Pacific Americans and Latinos and Puerto Ricans.
Although the CEO is very much a work in progress, Gordon said, “We are going over all of the issues that we (the three commissions) worked on in the past and will consider which ones move forward over the long term.”
Gordon stated, “We are committed to the individual identities.”
Palmares, who is running for state representative in Danbury also expressed the hope that the “individual voices” of the minority communities will “not be placed in one bucket and that each sector will have an individual voice.”
While the loss of LPRAC creates some concerns for Latino leaders, there also is recognition that the harsh fiscal reality confronting the state made it very difficult to avoid merging the commissions, which Governor Dannel Malloy has repeatedly espoused and minority legislators have successfully thwarted in the past.
The combined individual budgets that had been proposed for the three commissions was nearly a million dollars. The CEO budget is pegged at nearly $300,000 less.
Consolidating the legislative commissions was one of the tough decisions the legislature had to make due to the budget shortfall, said Rosario, whose primary focus was to protect Bridgeport as much as possible from budget cuts in areas such as education and quality of life programs.
Palmares, the first Brazilian-American to run for state office in Connecticut, said she is glad the minority communities will still have a commission.
She also expressed hope that what will emerge is a “solution that will allow the minority community to effectively express opposition or support of legislation.”
In addition to Gordon, the CEO will have seven staff members including three from LPRAC: Oyanadel along with Lucia Goicoechea-Hernandez and Clarisa Cardone, who have performed a variety of administrative roles.
“I am happy to have a lot of LPRAC staff on board,” said Gordon, who was still looking to find someone to replace herself, a legislative analyst focusing on African-American concerns.
While helping with the transition, Oyanadel is engaged in revving up for his new duties as the lead representative dealing with public policy research and legislative outreach on the Latino side.
“I have already began to research areas of public policy, which enhances equity and opportunity in the Latino community here in Connecticut,” Oyanadel said.
These areas include employment security, better quality education for Latino English Language Learners, behavioral health issues, and access to cultural/linguistic appropriate resources to families moving to Connecticut from Puerto Rico as a result of the economic crisis affecting the island commonwealth.
Gordon said one of the first areas she wants to pursue is veterans issues, noting that each of the merged commissions has individually focused on this area.
Mental health and education, including minority teacher hiring and language issues, also are important to all the minority communities and high on her agenda, said Gordon, who is a 2006 graduate of Bates College and earned a public policy master’s degree six years later from New England College.
Other projects on Gordon’s drawing board are an ethnic media fair that would be held in the fall, and a veterans event in November.
Who will serve on the CEO board is a question to be answered by the leadership of the state legislature.
Initially, the CEO board is to consist of as many as 63 people. Each of the three commissions that are dissolving have been authorized to have up to 21 members and those people whose terms have not expired as of June 30 will move forward to the new commission to at least complete their tenure.
However, several board vacancies already exist on the individual commissions and others are expected to open June 30 when various terms expire.
The legislation creating the Commission on Equality and Opportunity requires that all appointments be made by the majority leaders of the state House and Senate. Board members must have experience in either Latino and Puerto Rican affairs, Asian Pacific affairs or African American affairs.
The legislation also requires that the various sections of the state be represented on the which Gordon noted will be a challenge to find appropriate candidates in some areas where the minority population remains relatively small, such as northwest and northeast Connecticut.
Palmares said that LPRAC board currently is made up comprised mostly of people of Puerto Rican descent with the few exceptions including herself and Chris Soto, a Cuban-American from New London who also is running for state representative.
“It is important for us to seek out people from other communities to diversify our voice,” Palmares said. She would welcome having another Brazilian-American on the board
One of the Latino activists who hopes to be appointed to the new board is Richard Cruz, who recently has served as LPRAC chairman. He said his appointment was lapsed, but he was allowed to continue until a replacement was made.
Cruz said the consolidation process “is going to be interesting.” He said the minority communities share some common issues and there will be a lot of working together, but there also is a need for each community to bring its own concerns forward. “I am waiting to see how that vibe feels,” he said.
At the same time, the Bridgeport Latino, suggested, “We have to keep an open mind, an open view.”