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Millions of dollars for job training, legalizing recreational marijuana and improving mental health in schools are among top priorities for Connecticut’s Senate Democrats this legislative session

Hartford Courant - 1/23/2020

Senate Democrats called Thursday for tens of millions of dollars in additional funding for job training as a top priority for the 2020 legislative session that starts in less than two weeks.

Even with the national economy growing solidly over the past decade, lawmakers said there is an ongoing need to help veterans, low-income residents and the disabled obtain jobs. Connecticut’s unemployment rate is below 4%, but some groups of workers are still having difficulty finding employment.

Job training is one focus of the Senate Democrats’ “Smart & Responsible Connecticut” agenda that includes expanding affordable housing, improving mental health in high schools and on college campuses, requiring financial literacy in public schools and legalizing recreational marijuana. Lawmakers said they are aware they will need to move quickly if they are going to accomplish all of their goals in the short session that starts on Feb. 5 and ends on May 6.

Manufacturing remains a major focus for lawmakers.

“During its manufacturing heyday, Connecticut had the best tool-and-dye makers and machinists and others -- and that’s why we had so many jobs of that kind here," said Senate President Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat. “We need to keep that edge. As new jobs with different kinds of highly technical skills are created in the future, we need to make sure what has always been a source of pride in Connecticut continues to be.”

Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat who represents 10 towns in southeastern Connecticut, said the state needs to strengthen the pipeline that funnels workers into jobs at 4,000 manufacturers across the state. That includes major defense contractors such as Electric Boat in Groton, Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford and Sikorsky in Stratford.

“It’s not just designed for one industry, and it’s not just designed for one section of the state,” said Osten, the co-chair of the budget-writing appropriations committee. “While we continue to fill jobs in manufacturing, which are much more technical today than they were 30 years ago, we still need tens of thousands of workers in that area.”

Although manufacturing remains a major focus, senators are also concerned about other fields. Those include jobs like home care aides, APRNs, registered nurses and commercial drivers.

The impetus for the training is to encourage Connecticut high school and college students to remain in their home state after they graduate.

“That’s the most important thing -- we want to make sure that they stay here,” Osten said. “I have four grandchildren. I’d like them all to stay here.”

Lawmakers would set aside at least $20 million for job training from bond funds, but they also want to expand funding in the state’s general operating budget.

Senate Democrats are also pushing for the legalization of recreational marijuana -- a controversial issue that has been repeatedly rejected by the legislature over the past four years. Due to a lack of support, the issue has never come up for a vote in the full House of Representatives or Senate.

Lawmakers are still debating over the exact taxation of the product, which would include a special tax of 25%, plus the state’s 6.35% sales tax.

“We know it’s an election year,” said Sen. Doug McCrory, a Hartford Democrat who is among the leading advocates on the issue. “We know it’s a tough challenge.”

If the taxation is too high, consumers would continue to buy marijuana illegally because the price would be lower, lawmakers said.

“We don’t want to overtax ourselves and the black market continues the way it is,” McCrory said. “We can’t out-price ourselves.”

Christopher Keating can be reached at ckeating@courant.com.

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