From public health to bottle deposits, racial equity defined the 2021 legislative session

Photo of Ken Dixon

On Wednesday, the Black Lives Matter flag will be hoisted over the State Capitol, an early Juneteenth commemoration, but a fitting symbol for the year.

The pandemic shut down the 2020 General Assembly and the May death of George Floyd in Minneapolis set off an explosion of protests nationally and in Connecticut over longstanding health, economic and social inequities. Connecticut lawmakers last year set a “Juneteenth agenda.”

In the recently finished regular session, the legislature tackled a wide variety of racial-fairness issues, with many positive results.

Equity was a word that was highlighted not only in the pronouncements of Gov. Ned Lamont and Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate, but in all of the 26 legislative committees, where dozens of pieces of legislation were aimed at both sweeping changes and incremental advances in fairness.

Among them: a bill that declared racism a public health crisis.

The list is long and still growing, with a special legislative session set for Tuesday and Wednesday to apply finishing touches to public policy.

“We came out of a year from hell,” Lamont told reporters on Thursday afternoon, the day after the 22-week budget-setting session ended. “I think it was really important that we came together….to make sure that we take care of those hardest hit by COVID. Make sure that those urban communities, in particular Black and brown people, the hardest-hit, get a chance to get back on their feet.”

A five-year, $1.5-billion Community Investment Fund will help the state’s cities with economic development, education, housing and internet availability.

Expanded insurance opportunities will add 40,000 more low-income residents to the 130,000 already on the state’s Access Health CT exchange.

Federal pandemic support will allow expanded child care opportunities and summer programs so single parents can get back into the workforce. Working families will be able to claim higher levels of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Formerly incarcerated people can have many criminal records deleted after seven or 10 years, the so-called clean slate law that Lamont signed last week, even though he said it went too far and asked lawmakers to revisit the bill to remove some felonies from the list. Lamont supports another bill that will allow incarcerated people to finally have free phone calls, saving some families a thousand dollars a year or more.

An adult-use marijuana bill that couldn’t get final action in time for the deadline last week will be the focus of this week’s special legislative session. Its centerpiece is one of the nation’s most-ambitious attempts to offer career opportunities in the state’s new cannabis industry to neighborhoods where generations of Black and brown people were targeted during the failed war on drugs.

The intense focus on equity in the Black Lives Matter era started last summer with a controversial police transparency and accountability bill in a special summer session. But while last year’s Capitol closure limited lawmakers to just a few issues, this year the racial equity theme blossomed amid increased awareness of institutional unfairness against minority communities.

“We did a lot of work this year in a complicated environment,” House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said in a Friday interview. In addition to the investment fund, Rojas stressed changes to the formula used to fund public schools that will funnel more money into districts with concentrated poverty and children who are English learners.

‘I made a commitment’

Rojas highlighted another bill, the CROWN Act, which will protect people who want to wear their hair in traditional racial and ethnic styles, from discrimination in the workplace. Still another new law will allow property owners to go to their town and city halls to revise property records and excise racially restrictive covenants, which although have no legal power, date from the days of more-overt discrimination against minorities.

“I feel very encouraged,” said Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport. “We always can do better. We can always do more. I just feel this was a great year for us. I am very proud of the Senate and House and the committee work at every level. I made a commitment during Black Lives Matter to address racial equity in everything I did. This is our time to bring it together.”

Much of the equity agenda was made possible by the federal American Rescue Plan, with $2.8 billion in coronavirus stimulus shoring up state finances and paying directly for some programs, such as child care.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend it the way we need to,” Moore said. “It’s up to the governor to spend it and not neglect communities of color.”

Setbacks and disappointments

The agenda fell short in key areas. A bill aimed at forcing suburbs to provide more affordable housing was drastically rewritten and diluted by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

Efforts by progressive Democrats to hike taxes on the state’s wealthiest, to pay for urban neighborhood projects, were rejected by Lamont. That would have also paid for a proposed $600 tax credit for most children in the state, which failed in budget negotiations.

“We have a long way ahead of us,” said Rep. Brandon McGee, Jr., D-Hartford, co-chairman of the legislative Housing Committee. “We haven’t touched the surface when we talk about equity. When you think of the progress, how far we’ve come, how far we have to go, responding to the woes of the pandemic and we’re slowly getting to the new normalcy, folks are facing the same challenges in housing.”

The Housing Committee was able to successfully push legislation to provide tenants a right to legal counsel in eviction proceedings, a bill that was signed into law by Lamont on Thursday. But other tenant-protection bills did not survive the legislative process.

“I am livid that we were unable to pass policies that would help more tenants and homeowners,” McGee said. “My school of thought is that on the Housing Committee, we should focus our attention and state resources on specifically long-term, urban residents who have experienced a lack of housing options. We should be able to focus on zoning and make major investments in new housing. We have to follow through in a holistic way and look at what equity means to the whole state.”

The biggest disappointment, to urban lawmakers and progressive Democrats, was in the watering down of affordable housing and desegregation bills, which were sharply opposed in communities including Greenwich. One part of that legislation, for example, would have allowed local housing authorities to propose and support new residential opportunities in neighboring communities. It failed.

“Even before the pandemic, a lot of people were unable to go forward and improve their quality of life by buying new homes,” said Rep. Andre Baker, D-Bridgeport, vice chairman of the legislative Planning and Development Committee. “People want to own and they want to move to certain areas to live, like Trumbull or Fairfield, but they’re blocked out. We really wanted to open the door for people to do that.”

However, Baker said that the watered-down bill on affordable housing, which among other things will allow single family homeowners to more easily create accessory dwelling units in their homes, is a start. “But if we’re looking to have companies move to Connecticut, we have to show that we’re an open, diverse state. It could be whatever we want it to be.”

A game-changer for cities

For veteran state Rep. Chris Rosario, D-Bridgeport, the biggest positive out of the session is the Community Investment Fund.

“This is going to literally re-ignite urban areas such as Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury,” Rosario said Friday. “We have have had a lot of investments in cities, but not necessarily in our neighborhoods. This should kick start it, get it up and going and help drive the economy of our urban centers.”

The “clean slate” law should also help his district. “It’s also an economic-development bill, because for people who go seven or 10 years without contact with the police, they can get their records erased, which can allow them to have a better paying job, move to a better neighborhood, or buy a home.”

Another bill, restricting the state Department of Correction on the use of solitary confinement, will also help the mental health of incarcerated people, Rosario said. “If you are going to torture people, you are just going to maintain the cycle of people leaving prison and getting rearrested,” he said.

Free prison phone calls will save important amounts of money for families, said Rosario, speaking about his brother, who is incarcerated. The lawmaker spends about $1,200 a year in calls to him. “I can afford to communicate with him, but other families go for years without talking to their loved ones,” he said.

Undoing the drug war

Rosario, who was first elected in 2014, said he is currently studying the adult-use cannabis bill that was approved in the Senate last week, but did not make the House floor before the legislative session ended at midnight on Wednesday.

While he appreciates the equity components, allowing people from neighborhoods impacted by the war on drugs to get various licenses to get into the market, Rosario currently has reservations on whether he will support the controversial bill in the special session next week

“It is a great starting point, considering where we were at the beginning of the session,” Rosario said of the cannabis legislation. “Some advocates are pushing for more equity.”

Rosario, who is a civilian employee of the Shelton Police Department, recalled that when Bridgeport’s longtime manufacturing industry finally collapsed, creating an unemployment crisis in the 1980s, many of his neighbors found themselves dealing marijuana to help make ends meet. “And they paid a deep price for it,” he said.

Lamont contends that the two-year, $46.4 billion budget that will take effect on July 1 goes a long way toward addressing equity imbalances, though critics on the left say it doesn’t go far enough — notably, Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, co-chairman of the legislative Finance Committee. In a speech Wednesday on the Senate floor, he railed against the removal of sections that would tax the state’s wealthiest about $800 million in the budget year that starts July 1.

“Our policies are a knee on the neck of the Black community and other under-served communities of our state,” said Fonfara, the architect of the rejected new taxes on the wealthy. “We can do better, and we must do better.” Twitter: @KenDixonCT