NEWINGTON – Health care and education are important to residents, legislators gathered from a recent meeting.
State Reps. Gary Turco, Kerry Wood and Rick Lopes heard about these and other issues pressing people during a Pre-Session Forum at the Lucy Robbins Welles Library. Close to two dozen residents aired their grievances ahead of the short 2020 session, beginning Feb. 5.
“We can’t be experts on everything out there,” Turco said. “We ask all of you for advice on things you’re experts on. Educate us and collaborate with us so we can make the best possible decisions.”
Kathleen Flaherty, executive director of the non-profit Connecticut Legal Rights Project, offered her perspective as an advocate for low-income and mentally ill individuals.
“I care about non-profits, the lack of affordable housing and what the state is going to do about mental health,” Flaherty told the legislators, adding that fewer funding resources available to non-profits right now equates to less help for already underserved populations.
Newington Board of Education member Steven Silvia asked the group to rethink unfunded mandates the state Department of Education requires school districts to implement.
“If you keep adding on all these little mandates you’re chipping away at what we’re capable of accomplishing,” Silvia said, explaining how towns can’t afford more and are suffering as a result, but could be thriving if left to govern themselves. “Eliminate some of the laws you have on the books and I think after five years time it will work wonders.”
His comments were applauded by Richard Lavariere, who introduced himself as “concerned about big government.”
Eva Jimenez, a parent and teacher in town, also opposed more regulations on the education system.
“As a teacher I feel empowered and that bounces off my students and they thrive,” she said. “After recent mandates are the kids really better off? No.”
Jimenez and several other educators advocated for families who may be impacted by a proposal to eliminate religious exemptions to vaccinations. Muslims and others who choose not to have their children vaccinated would have to pull them out of school if a law is enacted.
“I understand the hysteria, but the question is, is it right to turn a child away from school?” Jimenez asked.
The legislators differed in their responses to this growing debate.
“I am going to defer my vote to what the medical professionals say,” Lopes said. “That’s still my best judgment on what should happen policy-wise.”
Wood said she is leaning more toward the side of keeping exemptions in place.
“Not being a parent, it’s hard for me to tell other parents what they should and shouldn’t put in their children’s bodies,” she pointed out.
Newington resident Sam Sharma, who ran for the BOE this past fall but was not elected, told legislators he is in favor of tolling state roads.
“I drive to Cambridge, Massachusetts for work and pay $25 to $30 a month in tolls,” Sharma said. “Why shouldn’t people traveling from other states have to pay here?”‘
On this widely debated issue, Newington’s contingent agreed that the state needs a regular source of transportation revenue - from tolls or some other initiative - and it needs to decide what sooner rather than later.
Jan and Harold Kritzman, owners of the former Old Towne Coin Shop on the Berlin Turnpike, also spoke.
Jan worked with Turco on legislation that became effective Jan. 1, requiring insurance companies to cover ultrasounds and MRIs for patients with dense breast tissue.
“The stars aligned and the dominos fell into place and I met the right group of legislators who are sitting behind me,” Jan said, standing up in the front row and facing fellow citizens.
“I want to tweak my law a little bit,” she added, urging them to consider adding diagnostic services, so patients whose results indicate the probability of cancer won’t pay hundreds more for additional testing.
The discussion on this and other topics could have continued long after the library closed. Elected officials encouraged people to reach out to them after the meeting.
“The session doesn’t stop here,” Turco said. “We want to hear from you on legislation you like, legislation you don’t like and legislation you want us to take off the books.”
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or email@example.com.