Senate President Martin Looney at the podium Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

Funding increases for school mental health services and child care workers will headline the Senate Democrats’ 2022 legislative priorities, caucus leaders announced during a Tuesday press conference. 

Democratic lawmakers in the Senate traditionally highlight their top legislative priorities for a session by giving it the numerical designation, “Senate Bill 1.” For the second consecutive year, SB 1 will focus at least in part on addressing the mental health fallout of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I’ve received … many anguished calls from parents and families sharing stories of the mental and emotional pressures that they have been under since COVID burst onto the scene two years ago,” Senate President Martin Looney said. “We owe it to the next generation of Connecticut to make sure that we respond to that.” 

Looney and other Senate Democrats, who hold the majority in the chamber, told reporters they planned to use this year’s bill as a vehicle to increase funding for school social workers, train sports coaches to provide mental health assistance to young athletes, and expand school-based health centers. Other provisions will make it easier for towns to qualify for state funding to offset special education costs, provide school districts with Narcan, and increase recruitment of minority teachers.

Those proposals and others are aimed at shoring up a youth mental health system which has strained to the breaking point as the pandemic has pushed need well beyond available services for both children and adults. 

Lawmakers Tuesday were not yet putting dollar amounts on the proposals. When it comes to increasing funding for service providers, Sen. Saud Anwar, co-chair of the legislature’s Children’s Committee, said they were researching appropriate rates to keep Connecticut competitive with other states.

“There is a need across the country,” Anwar said. “So people are able to get significant amount of money right off the bat as they sign on and we want to make sure that if we are going to put some of that money, we want our taxpayer money to go a long way.”

There is bipartisan consensus on the severity of the issue. Lawmakers conducted several hearings late last year in an effort to get their arms around the extent of the shortfalls in the youth behavioral health system. During a press conference last month, Senate Republicans signaled they would also make the issue a priority for their caucus this year. 

On Tuesday, Senate Republican leaders Kevin Kelly of Stratford and Paul Formica of East Lyme released a statement urging lawmakers to work together to increase access to mental health services and combat the presence of fentanyl. 

“We need a different approach to help children in every community across Connecticut have opportunity and security,” Kelly and Formica said. “We look forward to working hand in hand with any and all lawmakers who recognize that Connecticut must pursue a better way.”

Earlier this month, a coalition of advocates and unions pressed policymakers to invest more state dollars in the system. 

Senate Democrats also announced plans to expand the availability of preschool programing and child care through a second proposal, called Senate Bill 2. The legislation will eventually include funding designed to boost the pay of child care workers who often leave the sector for better paying jobs. 

Sen. Doug McCrory, co-chair of the legislature’s Education Committee, said he hoped the bill would include funding to provide universal pre-K programing in the state’s 33 lowest-performing school districts, called Alliance Districts. 

“You see kids coming in without pre-K supports, way behind kindergarten — they’re so far behind,” McCrory said. “They’re five years old and it continues through their career path in education.”