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State senators provide update on budget, police reform, absentee voting

Three state senators in southeastern Connecticut joined a virtual call hosted Wednesday by the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut to provide updates on the state budget, the COVID-19 pandemic and reopening of the economy, police accountability measures, absentee voting and some bad news perhaps you forgot about amid all the other bad news: eastern equine encephalitis.

Four people contracted the mosquito-borne disease in Connecticut last year and only one survived.

"It's ironic on some level: EEE needs the cold weather to go away; COVID likes the cold weather. As soon as COVID's under control, we're going to have EEE," said Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, who is "suggesting everyone get chickens" because they eat mosquitoes.

Also on the call were Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague. Formica said this winter didn't seem cold enough to kill the mosquito larvae, and that the state needs to look at increasing testing.

Police accountability, absentee balloting

Gov. Ned Lamont said last week he plans on calling the Connecticut General Assembly into session in July to address police accountability and expanding access to absentee ballots.

Senate Democrats unveiled their agenda Friday addressing police accountability and racial inequities, and local legislators shared their thoughts with The Day on various proposals.

Formica said Wednesday he has circulated a draft police reform bill within his caucus. He said it calls for a 13-person body to investigate cases of police brutality or abuse, and this would be independent of local police departments, state police and prosecutors.

He added, "I suggested potentially a conversation about taking random body camera footage from police departments occasionally and just reviewing them by this group, to see that processes and procedures were followed."

As for absentee voting because of the pandemic, Formica said that everybody in the legislature is in favor of opening up absentee balloting to the extent they can, but there's a constitutional issue.

The Constitution of the State of Connecticut permits the General Assembly to allow voting that isn't done at a polling place "because of absence from the city or town of which they are inhabitants or because of sickness, or physical disability or because the tenets of their religion forbid secular activity."

Formica questioned if "sickness" applies to fear of contracting COVID-19, saying there have been a lot of conversations both in the legislature and in the courts, with "attorneys on both sides arguing the same language."

"We need to find a way that falls within the constitution," he added, noting that only voters can change the constitution at the ballot box and there isn't time for that before November.

COVID-19 budgetary impact, tourism

Osten said the state's rainy day fund will be used to cover losses in tax revenue and pandemic-related expenses not covered by the federal government, but we won't know until late fall or early winter how much can come out of the fund and how much will come from cutting expenses.

While the current fiscal year ends on Tuesday, the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management asked to wait until the end of October to close out the books, Osten said, partially because of tax payment deadlines getting pushed back.

State officials last week announced a $1.2 million tourism marketing campaign but Osten thinks that "should really be closer to $10 million, so we can actually market in the Boston and New York markets, and the Canadian markets."

Somers would like to see $25 million, citing the high return on investment for tourism marketing, but knows that's "a dream."

She said she is "looking to open up Connecticut in a much more aggressive manner as long as our numbers stay below 3%," referring to the percentage of tests that come back positive. Similarly, Osten said the state needs to increase the number of people and density allowed at places that have reopened, provided there's no resurgence of the virus.

Somers urged people to wear masks, wash their hands, and use a wipe when pumping gas, and Formica said the state needs "to get as many people tested as we possibly can."

Formica has "full confidence that our economy is going to recover," believing the underlying economy is stronger than it was during the Great Recession.

e.moser@theday.com

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