By Lara Sokoloff

A Latino, a senior citizen, a women’s rights activist, and a child walk into a conference room. It sounds like the opener to a bad joke. But soon it might be a reality if Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy’s  proposal  to consolidate the state’s six minority commissions into one coalition passes. The commissions are non-partisan arms of the state government’s legislative branch, and frequently testify in favor of or against legislation that would affect particular minority groups in the community, aiming to make sure that each group’s best interest is served. They effectively act as liaisons between constituents and the government.

Connecticut state commissions receive only .03% of the state’s budget.  Despite the small fraction of the budget dedicated to these commissions, these six groups have had to consistently fight for their funding in the face of proposed cost saving strategies.

In 2011, the state commissions were forced to halve budgets and make significant cuts to their staffs. And in 2013, the government is looking again at the funds given to these small interest groups as a way to help balance the budget.

There are currently six commissions: the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW); the African American Affairs Commission (AAAC); the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission (LPRAC); Connecticut Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission; Connecticut Commission on Children (CCC); and Connecticut Commission on Aging. But soon, there could be one. On Feb. 6, Malloy proposed consolidating the six groups into one umbrella organization, the Commission for Citizen Advocacy. The new commission would be run by one executive director and staffed by representatives from each of the existing coalitions; a representative to serve in the interest of the LGBTQ community would be added under the proposal. The proposal would save about $800,000 annually, or .0003 percent of the biennial budget. The plan is nearly identical to those offered by Democrat Malloy’s two Republican predecessors, John Rowland and Jodi Rell. The past two attempts to eliminate the six commissions were struck down by the Democratic-controlled legislature. In two months time, the Connecticut legislature will decide once more whether that plan’s losing streak will continue.

As it stands now, each commission is to serve as the voice for its particular demographic. Much of the commissions’ work involves researching legislation and presenting that research to lawmakers, allowing them to make more informed decisions. Recently, the PCSW helped to pass the state’s first-ever truly bipartisan legislation against human trafficking: “That doesn’t just happen,” said Theresa Younger, executive director of the PCSW. “That happens because we are non-partisan and because we understand what the issues are. We can add voice to the issues in a legitimate, supportive, and comprehensive way.” In the past few years, the AAAC has worked to prohibit racial profiling in traffic stops while also helping to bridge state-wide education gaps. The CCC has been focusing on literacy legislation, working to expand on a law passed in 2012 that guarantees all children learn to read before third grade and also to ensure that the original legislation goes into effect. Other bills concerning teacher preparation and special education were also passed in 2012.  Over two months after Malloy’s unveiling of his new budget, leaders and members of the six minority commissions feel strongly that their work would be seriously compromised if the proposed consolidation were to go into effect.

Malloy’s primary motivation for the merger is financial, and he has received support from many state Republicans. Rep. Pam Sawyer R-55), is one such supporter. “I don’t think he’s gone far enough,’’ said Sawyer. “It makes sense to look at all of the commissions under one umbrella.’’ She explained that the commissions have many overlapping interests; for instance a women’s commission did not need to be separated from a children’s commission. “Don’t they all have children?’’ Sawyer asked the Hartford Courant.

Yet Werner Oyanadel, acting executive director of the LPRAC, said that there are alternative ways to save the same amount of money, with less destructive results. “The only reason they are trying to do this is to save money,” Oyanadel said. “But we have the ability to provide the same reductions that the governor is proposing without having to do the merge.”

When Oyanadel first heard about the Governor’s proposed consolidation, he thought the decision was against the law and beyond the scope of Malloy’s designated power as a governor.  When Younger first heard of it, she called the proposal an “insult to women and the commissions as they currently stand.”

But above all, commissioners all agree that the proposal would negate the very aspects of the current system that allow it to work. Each commission’s work is very specific to its own demographic. The aims of each commission may be similar in nature; for example many of the commissions focus on increasing opportunity for all or combatting discrimination. But shared ideals do not translate into the same strategies for immediate action, and commissions do ultimately seek to support the group they represent first. “Women’s issues are not necessarily children’s issues, and children’s issues are not necessarily women’s issues. And it goes on and on. To lump us all together is testament to the lack of understanding about what these different constituencies mean,” said Steven Hernandez, director of public policy and research at the CCC. “Our issues are unique,” Fred Pierre Louis, chair of the AAAC, told the New Haven Independent.  Louis cited the achievement gap between high- and low-performing students that affects black students disproportionately as an issue “huge to us.”

Many of the commissions leaders argue that were these groups to be consolidated, it would be impossible for them to remain effective. “It would be difficult to do anything close to what’s being done now,” said Glen Cassis, executive director of the AAAC. “[The commissions] wouldn’t have close to the same presence.” Younger added that she worries women’s issues in particular would be neglected. “If you bunch women’s issues in to everything else, they will get left off the table. We will put ourselves last,” said Younger. “We will worry about the children’s issues, we will worry about the aging issues, we may worry more about race and ethnicities issues before we ever worry about issues that are gender specific, like pay equity or reproductive health.”

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The formulation of the state budget begins in the Executive Branch. The governor compiles budgets from each state agency, producing what is often deemed “the governor’s budget.” The legislature then similarly compiles a budget, which is approved by the Senate Appropriations and Finance Committee. Once the Committee approves the legislature’s budget, it will begin collaborating with the Executive Branch to devise a budget that satisfies both branches. This budget must then be approved by the Senate, the House, and the governor.

Since the budget proposal in February, the commissions have been testifying in front of the Appropriations and Finance Committee to prove their viability as well as their indispensability to Connecticut residents. Commission leaders have also been reminding the state government that they help the state of Connecticut leverage federal funding.  For example, the CCC is reported to have brought in almost $1.5 million dollars in federal, philanthropic, and private assistance to community-run programs.

Recently, however, rather than focus on what the Appropriations Committee will ultimately decide, the commissions have returned to their work to prove their worth. “We’ve found ourselves in this twilight zone moment in the various commissions. While we are on some level having to make a case for our continued existence and viability, we’re also doing the business of our mandates,” said Hernandez of the CCC, “It is an unfortunate distraction to have to deal with the issue of consolidating commissions, each of which has a critical mandate for a sector of the population of
the state.”

The governor’s proposed Commission on Citizen Advocacy includes an LGBTQ community representative, though there is currently no LGBTQ commission. Hernandez said that there has been talk of forming such a LGBTQ commission since before the merger was proposed, but the proposal brought this discussion to the forefront as it highlighted the current failure of the state legislature to formally represent these interests. “The proposal does raise the question for legislators who care about LGBTQ issues about how is the LGBTQ voice being heard, and what can we do about it,” Hernandez said. “I know there are various proposals floating around in the legislature, but I’m not sure if anything is sticking.” Hernandez said that while LGBTQ issues have also come up in the CCC’s work, specifically concerning transgender children, generally, LGBTQ issues are separate and deserve their own commission: “I really do think that just as not all women’s issues are children’s issues and not all children’s issues are women’s issues, not all children’s, women’s, and aging issues are issues that the LGBTQ community is interested in,” Hernandez said. “So if there is room for expansion, I think that to have a defined [LGBTQ] constituency come to the table and remain at the table in a viable, active way is important.”

If Malloy’s proposal is voted down in June, the creation of an independent LGBTQ commission may be politically feasible. The passing of the proposal, however, would stunt this possible growth. And so the future of commissions, whether they might expand to include a seventh LGBTQ component or consolidate into one, will be in question until June.

Original Article