CMEEC, special education funding hot topics at legislative breakfast

Norwich — Some of the hundred or so attendees at the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce's biannual legislative breakfast brought up concerns about special education funding, tax policies, workforce development, transportation infrastructure and health care for seniors.

But woven throughout these policy concerns were efforts to restore faith in the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative.

"Don't let the actions of a few affect the reputations of many," said Chris Jewell, co-owner of Collins & Jewell and chairman of the chamber's board. He was referring to the 400-plus employees at Norwich Public Utilities and Norwich Free Academy, both of which have been addressing scandals in recent weeks.

NPU Board Chairwoman Grace Jones noted that the utility now is under the new leadership of acting General Manager Chris LaRose, and said she looks forward "to the legislature continuing to support the important work that NPU does."

"Fundamentally, CMEEC operates by state charter, as a public trust, and we are acutely aware that certain recent events have shaken that trust," CMEEC interim CEO Mike Lane said, referring to the indictment of five CMEEC board members following an investigation into lavish trips.

He spoke of "concrete actions to ensure proper government and oversight," taken over the past year or so, such as authorizing an outside law firm to conduct an independent investigation, updating bylaws and adding a municipal consumer advocate.

Lane stressed CMEEC's value in saving money for large commercial customers and said it is "fully functional" amid the investigation.

"The only way we know what we're doing up there is to listen to you"

The chamber holds the breakfast twice a year: once before the General Assembly session, for legislators to listen to the concerns of the business community, and once after the session, so they can report back. The 2019 session will begin on Jan. 9.

The listening legislators gathered at the Holiday Inn Norwich on Tuesday morning were Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague; Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme; Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme; Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin; Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard; Representative-elect Brian Lanoue, R-Griswold; Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford; and Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville.

"The only way we know what we're doing up there is to listen to you," Dubitsky said. "That's our job."

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said he hopes the legislature is having conversations on special education costs, which are "clobbering every city and town in the state."

On workforce development, Jewell encouraged the local delegation to inform themselves and other legislators on the Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative, while Sheila Hayes said there needs to be "a true partnership with the public schools — not just with the technical schools, not just with the colleges."

Swaranjit Singh Khalsa called for more programs to assist first-time homebuyers, and Ted Phillips pressed for increased spending on infrastructure to avoid a tragedy, such as a bridge collapse.

Robert Gallagher, a longtime Mohegan Sun employee, implored the legislators not to roll back the approval of the East Windsor casino.

The legislators also briefly talked about some of their priorities for next year: Cheeseman stressed the importance of developing a skilled workforce, Lanoue wants to focus on cutting red tape and taxes, McCarty talked about educational achievement gaps and opioid addiction, and Formica wants to see the bipartisan work of the last session continue.


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