Connecticut Special Commissions Fight For Survival
February 13, 2009
The state, for now at least, has special commissions for women, Latinos, African Americans, children and the elderly.
Why not a commission for men?
That question was posed by Rep. Minnie Gonzalez to leaders of the state's Permanent Commission on the Status of Women at a hearing this week. Gonzalez, a Democrat from Hartford, said she received a letter raising the issue.
Pat Russo, honorary member of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, says the women's commission does a lot for men. But at a time when all five of the commissions are fighting for their very survival, she added, a new group representing the interests of men isn't what's needed.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell has called for the elimination of the five commissions in her budget proposal, a move that would save the state about $4 million annually. The dollar amount is relatively small in the face of Rell's $18.84 billion budget proposal, but the commissions have become important symbolic targets as lawmakers ponder the role and reach of state government.
On Wednesday commission leaders pressed their case before Gonzalez and other members of the legislature's appropriations committee. They cited the work they perform, the voices they represent and the many ways they actually save the state money. The permanent commission on women, for instance, conducts sexual harassment awareness seminars for state employees; the in-house seminars save the state $100,000 to $200,000 a year that it otherwise would have to pay to outside consultants, said Teresa C. Younger, the group's executive director.
Gonzalez asked Younger, who oversees a staff of nine, what she was willing to give up if her budget were cut.
It's far too early to say, Younger responded, adding, "I would pose back: What are the women of Connecticut willing to give up?"
Others asked if the five separate commissions could be merged into one entity. But defenders of each group spoke of their "special missions." One agency dedicated to such disparate interests might not be very effective, they asserted.
"What state agency will ensure African American students ... have access to financial aid?" asked Glenn Cassis, executive director of the African American Affairs Commission.
The commission serves as a watchdog and advocacy agency in a state where African Americans make up 12 percent of the population but 21 percent of the children living in poverty, he said.
"We recognize these are very difficult budget times," added Julie Evans Starr, executive director of the state Commission on Aging. But the commission's annual budget of $460,000 represents a tiny fraction of the state budget, she said.
Rep. Deborah Heinrich suggested that commissions have become easy targets because they have failed to highlight the work they do.
"I don't think people necessarily know because you're quiet about it," said the Democrat from Madison. "It's time for us to toot your horn."
The appropriations committee has yet to decide the fate of the commissions; advocates will have another chance to press their case at a meeting next month.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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