As March Madness enveloped us, the University of Connecticut men's basketball team knew firsthand that if you're not in the game, you are out of sight and out of mind. Although the Huskies will be back next season, if the state's Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission is allowed to perish, a resurrection is unlikely.
The proposed merger of effective, independent, nonpartisan legislative commissions including Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs and the elimination of the Commission on Aging would cost Connecticut more than it would save — 0.005 percent of the state budget. More important is what would be lost.
Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission's mission is concise, but critical. It is responsible for raising awareness of significant issues, recommending "new and enhanced policies, programs and services that will foster progress," and monitoring and reporting on improvements in achieving health, education, safety, elimination of discrimination and economic self-sufficiency for the state's Latinos.
The all-volunteer legislative commission, supported by a small staff, also provides advice to the General Assembly and governor concerning the coordination and administration of state programs that affect Hispanics, and develops current data "to better understand the status, condition and contributions of the Latino community."
A survey last year revealed eye-opening conditions meriting attention. Consider the numbers: Connecticut Hispanics are almost 14 percent of the state's population, with a median age of 27. The poverty rate among Hispanics under age 16 is an alarming 27 percent, and an equally concerning 22 percent of Hispanic residents have no health insurance. Connecticut's education achievement gap, between low-income minority students and more affluent students, is among the nation's largest. Hispanics rates of attendance in higher education are troubling.
The prospect of starting businesses, getting state contracts, sustaining employment, achieving home ownership and otherwise pursuing the American Dream are challenging in the current economy for many Americans, but for none more so than Hispanics.
It is unrealistic to expect a polyglot commission to address adequately all of the highly specialized needs that are energetically addressed not only by the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, but by each of the commissions. They exist in the legislative branch for a purpose, and there is no indication that the proposed mash-up structure in any way strengthens, supports, enhances or reinforces their respective obligations.
Some of the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission's recent efforts include:
•Alerting state government to the impact on residents of a new law in Puerto Rico regarding birth certificates as a primary proof of citizenship for U.S. passports.
•Helping to initiate a probe by the U.S. Department of Justice into acts of racial profiling in East Haven.
•Developing socioeconomic research to fill gaps in the state's data collection.
•Advancing initiatives concerning driver's licenses, access to college education, and participation in voting and government.
•Conducting legislative forums to advise policy-makers on mandated issues such as education, public safety, discrimination, self-sufficiency and public health.
The commission understands the need to control state expenditures, and has taken effective steps to do so. But we also recognize the growing Latino and senior population requires more, not less, attention to issues that include their educational, linguistic, immigration status, employment, safety, health and economic well-being.
Disbanding these commissions would deny policy-makers the on-the-ground sensibility that heightens their effectiveness in crafting laws and regulations and the delivery of services. It is the epitome of penny-wise and pound-foolish.
If we are to move beyond having populations among us underrepresented and underserved, it takes precisely the type of concerted, collaborative effort that the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission can help propel. It is in Connecticut's best interest, economic and otherwise. The merger plan is inconsistent with the values of a state that respects equality and diversity, promotes opportunity, and aspires to lead by example.
Connecticut's Hispanic population has grown nearly 50 percent in the past decade. That should increase our determination that these voices be heard, not reduced to mere whispers of untapped potential. The Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission is a conduit for consequential progress in Connecticut. Now is not the time to be so shortsighted as to be blinded by a minuscule budget savings.
Werner Oyanadel is acting executive director of the state Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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