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'Freshmen' legislators have full plates at state Capitol

By Johanna Somers

Publication: The Day

Published January 12. 2013 4:00AM
Five newcomers from region face 'pretty big learning curve'

Five General Assembly freshmen in Connecticut's Senate and House have quite a bit of catching up to do this month.

"What you're doing up there is a lot different than what you did at the local level. There's a pretty big learning curve," said state Rep. Brian Sear, D-Canterbury.

All five new lawmakers have leadership experience, he said, but instead of wearing the manager's hat they'll have to learn to bring their constituents' voices to the Capitol and to be effective legislators.

Sear said he would continue his term as the first selectman of Canterbury, just as freshman state Sen. Cathy Osten,
D-Sprague, says she'll keep her first selectman post in that town.

Local government experience will serve Sear and others well, he said. As more state legislators promote regionalization as a way to save money, it's important to have legislators who understand that more consolidation doesn't always mean more efficient local government, he noted. If towns are going to be sharing resources, he said, he'd rather see them work together than to have the state give out mandates.

Osten said last week she would be looking at how to be as fiscally conservative as possible while at the same time protecting constituents. As a member of four committees - co-chair of the Labor & Public Employees Committee, vice chair of the Planning & Development Committee, member of the Public Safety & Security Committee and member of the Veterans Affairs Committee - she'll have her hands full.

But the state budget and how to prevent another Newtown tragedy will be at the top of the agenda, she said.

"For me, one of the pieces is the lack of service for people with mental illness," Osten said. "I'll be looking at that, and I have looked at that for years. It was something I did when I was in the Department of Corrections."

Freshman State Rep. Timothy Bowles, D-Preston, and freshman state Rep. Emmett Riley, D-Norwich, have added to the group of new lawmakers in the Norwich region.

After Edith Prague, D-Columbia, stepped down from her Senate seat, both Osten and former state Rep. Tom Reynolds, D-Gales Ferry, ran for it. Osten won and Reynolds' seat became available. Bowles won that one.

"I look forward to being an effective legislator even though I'm a freshman," said Bowles, adding that his work at the Office of Policy and Management and on Preston's Board of Selectmen would help him.

Riley has replaced his wife, former state Rep. Melissa Olson, D-Norwich, in Hartford. He said he would be drawing on his experience as a legislative aide to state Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven.

"I'm excited and ready to deal with tough issues as a House representative for the city of Norwich," Riley said.

Another new state senator in the region is Art Linares, R-Westbrook. Even though he's a freshman, he has managed to become the ranking member on the Banks Committee and the Children Committee.

"First and foremost, it's important to put forth what my platform was in the campaign, which is to make sure that we keep an eye on spending and fiscal responsibility," Linares said. He said he would voice his opinion in budget discussions and also try to help small businesses.

For example, Linares said, he wants to eliminate the business entity tax, which costs $250 for new businesses. Some of his leadership experience comes from co-founding the business Greenskies, a renewable energy company based in Middletown.

Linares' district includes towns such as Lyme and Old Saybrook, but it's generally not considered part of southeastern Connecticut's delegation, said state Rep. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford.

There are a quite a few freshman in the southeastern Connecticut delegation but it is a cohesive delegation with strong leadership, Stillman said. Four of its members are deputy speakers and a number of representatives are co-chairs or vice chairs of committees. Stillman said she was named Senate deputy president pro tempore just last week.

"In terms of turnover, we have had our first delegation meeting and it went very well," she said. "We have every expectation that we will continue to work together and represent the issues of our people and our districts."

Stillman said new lawmakers should go ahead and submit bill proposals and always keep the lines of communication open.

They should "feel comfortable asking members of the delegation who have been around how to handle any problem that comes along," she said.

j.somers@theday.com

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