At a time when American citizens and political leaders are increasingly comfortable with hate speech and the rise of previously subversive gender and racial biases, it is disappointing, though maybe not surprising, that the General Assembly decided to reorganize (eliminate) the six nonpartisan legislative commissions on racial and ethnic minorities and women and children. The decision resulted in a total savings of $715,000 out of a budget of nearly $20 billion. The insensitivity with which this decision was made is breathtaking.
The African-American Affairs Commission (1997-2016), Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission (2008-16), Commission on Aging (1993-2016), Commission on Children (1985-2016), Permanent Commission on the Status of Women (1973-2016) and the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission (1994-2016) were created to monitor and report on conditions that impact the health, safety, education, economic security and efforts to remain free from discrimination that may affect their specific constituencies, which have been historically underrepresented in legislative bodies and agencies. Issues affecting these groups remain largely invisible to a majority population that prefers to see any problems as having been contained or on the mend. This low-hanging fruit was easy to target precisely because the constituencies that they support remain underrepresented in a General Assembly that today consists of a majority of white males.
The commissions have taken leadership roles in providing information to influence public policy and further initiatives on behalf of their constituent groups. For example, with the support of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, the General Assembly this year passed a domestic violence safety initiative addressing the temporary removal of firearms during temporary, ex parte restraining orders. The Commission on Aging completed a study on elder abuse. The Permanent Commission on the Status of Women led efforts to combat human trafficking. The Commission on Children continues to lead the Parent Leadership Training Institute and has addressed opiate addiction in Connecticut. More important, for a paltry 0.0107 percent of the state’s total budget, the commissions provided a voice to marginalized segments of Connecticut’s population at the General Assembly to ensure that these persons, who are historically underrepresented, would at least have some influence on public policy.
With the elimination of the commissions, the legislature has now told these groups that they are no longer important to the state; that the paltry 0.0107 percent of the budget is too high a burden to be borne in exchange for giving them a voice at the General Assembly. Some have criticized the commissions as not serving a legislative function and suggest that their work should be done by private groups, but this is wrong. The legislature exists to fulfill the will of the people, and it cannot do this without knowing what the will of the people, including the underrepresented, is.
The Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, the Commission on Aging, and the Commission on Children will be combined into a new Commission on Women, Children and Seniors that is charged with continuing to address issues affecting these constituencies, albeit with approximately $1 million less to do so. It is difficult to imagine how these three commissions, which have successfully taken a leading role in diverse issues, including closing the achievement gap in reading, children’s mental health, elder abuse, affordable child care, domestic violence, and sexual abuse and human trafficking, can continue to address these issues on a budget of $700,000, only 38 percent of their prior budgets.
Likewise, the African-American Affairs Commission, Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission, and the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission will be combined into a single Commission on Equal Opportunity. It is impossible to overstate the diverse interests that African-Americans, Asian Pacific Americans and Latinos and Puerto Ricans hold. And it is hard to see how a single equal opportunity commission will be able to address the extensive bullying or language barriers that plague Asian Pacific Americans, language and migration issues that affect Puerto Ricans and Latinos, and the structural and institutional barriers that continue to affect African-Americans to name a few. These are diverse constituencies that deserve to have their voices heard.
A considerable amount of effort went into the creation of the commissions, and they have provided an invaluable service to their constituencies and the General Assembly. For the savings of $715,000, the elimination of the commissions is not penny-wise, but it is pound-foolish.