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Democratic Lawmakers, Rell Propose Ways For State To Retain And Retrain Workers


February 11, 2010

HARTFORD - Democratic lawmakers and Gov. M. Jodi Rell are proposing cost savings for college students to help Connecticut retain and retrain workers. But they differ on how to finance their plans and what type of students they intend to help.Democrats are considering a plan similar to Michigan's No Worker Left Behind program, which gives free tuition to unemployed or underemployed workers attending community college to pursue high-demand occupations such as green technology. House Majority Leader Denise Merrill, D-Mansfield, said lawmakers would push for the program to be funded by federal grants, as in Michigan.

Rell, a Republican, wants to create a loan-forgiveness program that would begin in 2013. Her program would forgive a portion of a person's student loans if the student graduates from a Connecticut school with a bachelor's or associate's degree in green technology, life sciences or health-related information technology, and if the graduate lives and works in the state for at least two years.

Rell intends to launch her program by tapping both the Connecticut Health and Education Facilities Authority and the Energy Conservation and Load Management Fund, taking $3 million from each.

The Connecticut Health and Education Facilities Authority is a quasi-public agency that provides the state's nonprofit institutions, such as hospitals, access to low-cost financing in public municipal markets. The authority gets its money from fees on portfolio bonds, and $3 million is a small portion of the fund's total amount, said Jeffrey Beckham of the state Office of Policy and Management.

The Energy Conservation and Load Management Fund is used to promote energy conservation and to shift electricity use to off-peak periods. It gets revenue from electric utility ratepayers, who are charged about three-tenths of 1 cent per kilowatt hour. About $81 million is generated annually, Beckham said.

The energy conservation fund is at risk twice in Rell's budget proposal.

The governor wants to take 37 percent of the fund's revenue and securitize it, or pledge it to a bondholder, to help decrease the state's 2010-11 deficit.

Some of the fund's revenue has been used to help the state in the past, but when money is securitized, it cannot be used for any other purpose for the term of the bond or loan.

Although both the Democrats' proposal and Rell's proposal are useful, they target different groups of people, said Edward J. Deak, an economics professor at Fairfield University. The Democrats' proposal is aimed at helping the unemployed, while Rell's looks to help those who already have high expertise.

Regardless of the merits of each proposal, Deak said, a decision will likely come down to what the state can afford. "The question is how much can be done," he said.

Merrill did not discount Rell's loan forgiveness proposal this week, saying that the state should see if the governor's program could be funded by federal dollars instead of money taken from the two funds. But Merrill wondered about the effectiveness of Rell's retention plan, saying she wasn't sure that there is a way to keep highly trained workers in Connecticut.

The state must continue to assess existing jobs programs and focus on community colleges and certificates, Merrill said. There is a need to put people to work immediately, she said.

Rell's office did not return several calls this week.

The Michigan plan has had success even though the state's unemployment rate is the highest in the country 14.6 percent owing in large part to the downturn in the auto industry.

The program started in 2007. The goal is to double the number of workers trained for new careers, and 108,884 residents had enrolled in training as of November 2009.

In the first 18 months of the program, only 16 percent of the then 62,206 participants failed to complete training, and nearly 8,000 participants who sought new jobs completed training and obtained employment, according to a report issued by Michigan government officials.

Frank Ridley, chairman of the Connecticut Board of Governors for Higher Education, said he is looking forward to learning more about the two proposed programs.

The proposals will bring attention to high-demand jobs and should help attract students, Ridley said. He added that the state is always trying to retain students. Almost every year, Rep. Tim O'Brien, D- New Britain, proposes eliminating in-state tuition and fees for the University of Connecticut, the state universities and the regional community technical colleges, but the bills have failed because of the cost, Ridley said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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