By State Senator Will Haskell
This week marks the end of the 2021 legislative session, the first full session since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and an important moment for our state. I’m proud of what my colleagues and I accomplished in Hartford, and I want to provide an update on some of the most important pieces of legislation that have passed through the General Assembly.
The centerpiece of this year’s Democratic agenda was Senate Bill 1, a sweeping bill designed to evaluate Connecticut’s response to COVID-19 and take steps to protect us from the next public health crisis. The bill helps expand our state stockpile of Personal Protective Equipment—which was so crucial during the early stages of the pandemic—and boosts state assistance for municipal health departments.
Beyond that, the legislation recognizes the fact that COVID-19 disproportionately harmed communities of color. It would be a dereliction of duty for us to see the truths laid bare by the pandemic and not take action against them. Senate Bill 1 makes Connecticut the first state in the country to recognize racism as a public health crisis, and it empowers a commission to document racially disparate outcomes in public health.
The lessons of COVID-19 go beyond public health, though. In 2020, Connecticut saw its largest voter turnout in years, due in large part to expanded absentee voting related to the pandemic. This session, we passed two resolutions to build on that success and expand access to the ballot. Both early voting and no-excuse absentee voting will appear as ballot referendums in the next two election cycles, taking us one step closer to modern voting laws that are in step with the rest of the country. Currently, Connecticut’s state constitution limits voting to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Connecticut is one of just seven states in America that does not allow for early, in-person voting. Additionally, our constitution restricts absentee voting to being out of town on Election Day, sickness or physical disability. Under the legislation, which would appear on the 2024 ballot, people would be able to vote by absentee for any reason. These referendums would provide greater flexibility to Connecticut residents, allowing for in-person voting before Election Day and opportunities to cast a ballot from the comfort and safety of your own home.
Of course, there’s more to a legislative session than just the big bills. Some of my proudest successes this year came from legislation suggested by constituents here in the 26th district. Earlier this year, a Ridgefield resident named Suzanne Brennan called Rep. Berger-Girvalo and I with a concern about AED access in fitness centers. Her husband died after suffering a cardiac event while exercising at a local gym. Senate Bill 1083 now mandates that health clubs and gyms keep a defibrillator on hand.
I also helped pass the expansion of the Open Choice program, which will allow towns like Ridgefield to fill vacant classroom seats with elementary school students from overcrowded urban districts like Danbury. Previously, the program was restricted to the Bridgeport, New Haven, and Hartford area. Looking at the experience of over 40 districts that already participate in the program, we know that increased diversity leads to improved educational outcomes. Importantly, the Open Choice program allows local school districts to recoup money from the state.
We have even more work to do over the next few months as we emerge from this pandemic and return to normal life. I strongly believe that the work we’ve done in Hartford sets the stage to not simply re-build a pre-pandemic economy, but create a stronger, more vibrant community in its place. After the session ends, I’m looking forward to hosting a series of Town Hall meetings to further discuss how we can move our state forward. I hope to see you there. In the meantime, thank you for the opportunity to represent our community in the State Senate.
State Senator Will Haskell represents the 26th State Senate District, which includes the Town of Ridgefield. The Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee provides this column.
The accompanying photograph is “Ballard Park, Ridgefield, Connecticut” which is in the public domain and part of The George F. Landegger Collection of Connecticut Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.