Economy, COVID dominate Milford Town Hall meeting

MILFORD - Developing the economy carried the conversation at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association/Milford Chamber of Commerce Legislative Town Hall on Dec. 10.

Democratic Sen. James Maroney of Milford, state Rep. Kathy Kennedy, R-119th District, and Rep. Frank Smith, D-118th, responded to a number of questions posed by Pam Staneski, executive director of the Milford Regional Chamber of Commerce, and CBIA vice president of government affairs Eric Gjede.

Occupational licensing, and how it impacts the flow of workers into the state, brought about the most debate.

“In relation to licensing, the short term needs of businesses related to the pandemic are very important, but we also have the long-term deficits and the best way to address those is to develop our economy,” Gjede said. “For military families Connecticut is one of the worst places to transfer into because we don’t have a statute that immediately recognizes the professional licenses of military family members. So, many of them choose to not to come here because it creates such a burden on their spouses and significant others.”

Gjede asked for a strategy. Maroney replied that reciprocity is key, and mutually beneficial.

“Connecticut has the most licensed occupations of any state in the country, I think it is 25 to 30 percent of our occupations are licensed,” he said. “We are seeing more needs for nurses and others to come into this state. Reciprocity is key for military families, but it is also key for any company that is trying to recruit talent.”

For example, he said one of Yale’s big issues is what happens with the trailing spouse.

“If you are trying to recruit a top professor and their husband or wife can’t find work here or it is tough for them to find work here, they are not going to move here,” he said. “For them to get the best and the brightest, we do need to make it easier for those trailing spouses. Especially as we see a growing bio-tech presence in the state, those trailing spouses are often going to be professionals who will want reciprocity when they come here.”

Kennedy said licensing was a key lesson to take from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I sit on public health this year and that is one of the bills we did address with occupations, physicians and nursing,” she said. “This is something we are still working on.”

One step forward is engaging earlier with building trades and out-of-state corporations, Maroney said.

“Building codes are different here, we have frost lines and other things that if you are coming from other parts of the country that you may not know,” he said. “It may not have been part of the course for your license, so I understand that. We need to get something done. That may mean that some of the harder pieces, we will still have to study until next year but at least we are going to get something done.”

In addition to engaging with other states, the licensing process also needs to be streamlined, he said.

“I think in general there is an appetite to make it easier to business with the state, to move more things online,” he said. “Commissioner (David) Lehman (Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development) and Governor Ned Lamont are all for making it easier to do business here.”

Paige Miglio, the Milford Arts Council’s executive director, wants the legislature to look in to leveling the playing field when it comes to COVID restrictions. Specifically she expressed concern about the discrepencies between occupany/distancing rules for restaurants and those for art and entertainment venues.

Kennedy agreed the guidelines needed to be addressed.

“Personally, I don’t think the guidelines are fair or equitable,” she said. }It is frustrating to me and I hope we can make some changes because we need the arts more than we ever had before.”

COVID-19 was also at the forefront of the conversation.

“Everything I’ve been doing since Election Day has been informed and translated through the lens of COVID-19,” Smith said. “To me, COVID-19 and the public health aspect of that is an all-encompassing priority from which everything else proceeds.”

Finally, the panel spent time discussing the CARES Act, which provided emergency relief for American workers and small businesses but whose benefots have run out.

“Small businesses are struggling,” he said. “We are at risk of losing a quarter to a third of all the small businesses. We need something yesterday. There are people now 6 to 8 months behind on rent, who live paycheck to paycheck. How are they going to make that up?”

He predicted COVID would dominate the upcoming legislative session. Smith agreed, but expressed cautious optimism that the pandemic would have a galvanizing effect on elected officials and citizens.

“When we start to see some waning of the pandemic and the horrific toll it has taken on our population, I believe there will be a new level of bi-partisanship at every level of government,” he said. “I think there will be a new opportunity to reach across the aisle.”

william.bloxsom@hearstmediact.com Twitter: @blox354