In budget crisis, Asian Pacific agency makes first hire

Faced with a new budget that includes little growth and staring at a record-setting deficit just 12 months away, most state government agencies are scrambling to hold onto to what they have.

But when the new fiscal year starts in just two weeks, Connecticut’s smallest agency will be looking to expand after a two-year fight to obtain funding.

With a budget of $52,310, the Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission will look to hire its first staff member later this year to serve a constituency advocates argue is too large and growing too quickly to ignore any longer. That level of funding might dictate hiring only a part-time executive director or legislative liaison, or possibly a full-timer who won’t start until January. But that still would be one more employee than the commission has had in a brief, two-year history.”

“This is the year it’s for real,” Jack Hasegawa of Woodbridge, a project manager for the state Department of Education and chairman of the commission. “It’s been an uphill battle, but we need to have a presence” in state government.

Though state officials haven’t made all of their appointments to the commission, the group recently reached 13 members, two more than needed for a quorum, and held its first meeting last month.

Rola, Angela 6-16-10

Angela Rola: It’s time to give the Asian community a political voice (Keith M. Phaneuf)

“The fact that our community has come together and lobbied for it and fought to keep it afloat speaks to the strength of the A-P-A community,” said Angela Rola of Willington director of the Asian-American Cultural Center at the University of Connecticut’s main campus in Storrs. “It’s time to give political voice to a community that has largely been ignored.”

First created through statute by the General Assembly and Gov. M. Jodi Rell in 2008, the commission passed unanimously in the Senate and with strong, bipartisan support in the House. The only objection came from those who pointed to what had then become six legislative agencies formed to represent constituent groups bound by lines of race, ethnicity, gender or age.

The 2008 legislation created a 13-member oversight panel — later expanded to 21 — and the Appropriations Committee endorsed an initial annual budget of $155,000.

“Then state government’s finances came crashing down around us,” Hasegawa said. “The explosion of the fiscal crisis changed everything.”

Funding in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 fiscal years was limited to $25,000-$28,000 annually — a symbolic figure meant more as a fiscal placeholder, and the money never was actually allocated. This year’s unused commission budget helped the legislature and Rell close out a deficit that had reached nearly $520 million.

Still, when the $19.01 billion budget for 2010-11 was adopted last month — a package that increases spending a mere 1 percent above current levels — an extra $26,600 was added for the Asian Pacific American Commission.

Though the number might seem relatively obscure amid $19 billion in total spending, the  new $52,310 commission budget is enough to finally enough to give the agency a professional face to go with more than a dozen volunteers, Hasegawa said.

Rola, who like Hasegawa was one of about a dozen representatives of clubs, civic groups, churches and other Asian community organizations across Connecticut who lobbied for the commission two years ago, does not dispute that advocates want to get their agency up and running now, before new fiscal challenges imperil their budget once again.

“We’ve got to put a real person in that office now,” she said. “If we’re going to be this great state of Connecticut that embraces diversity, that wants everyone to be safe and happy, then it is incumbent on all of us to become culturally competent.”

Looming just 12 months away is the 2011-12 fiscal year, which nonpartisan legislative fiscal analysts say faces a built-in, $3.37 billion shortfall, an amount equal to nearly one-fifth of the current state budget.

But Rola also said advocates are ready for those critics who say state government can’t afford another panel to assist a specific constituent group, already having five other agencies to assist African-Americans, the Latino and Puerto Rican community, women, children and the elderly, respectively.

Rola said U.S. Census figures show Connecticut had more than 125,000 residents in 2005, up nearly 30 percent from 2000, whose ancestry traces back to the planet’s largest continent. It stretches east-to-west from Russia and the Middle East to Japan and the Philippines; from Siberia and Mongolia south to India, Vietnam and southeast Asia.

The breadth of religions, languages, dialects and cultural traditions is staggering, said Rola, who is of Filipina descent. “There are dozens of communities in what we refer to as the ‘Asian Pacific community,'” she said.

Asian-Americans struggle with language and literacy problems, a lack of access to health care, discrimination and many of the problems facing other minority and immigrant groups.

Rola said the UConn center and dozens of other community-based groups provide volunteer interpreter services to police, courts, child welfare agencies, and doctors and other care providers.

They also have begun working cooperatively to combat youth gang activity, and discrimination in job and housing markets.

A state agency coordinating all of these efforts, helping to direct citizens to the assistance they need, and leveraging available federal dollars, ultimately could prove to be a financial aid to the state, she added.

But others have argued state government simply can’t afford agencies assigned to advocate for special constituent groups, even though their budgets total less than $1.9 million next fiscal year.

House Republicans, who control 37 out of 151 seats in that chamber, have developed proposals each of the past two years to merge all six commissions into one group, the Commission on the Status of Protected Citizens.

Rep. Anthony Hwang, R-Fairfield, one of two Asian-Americans in the House, has advocated for advancing the profile of the Asian community, but voted for the merger bill in 2009, which was rejected by the full House. Hwang could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, defended the legislature’s decisions to trim some of the other commission budgets, excluding the Asian Pacific American panel, in the 2010-11 plan, but added he believes most legislators recognize their value and hope to keep them intact.

“People wanted to achieve a savings, but we know they are in the communities, coordinating services and getting federal funds,” Williams said. “The question is how to make it all work in the budget.”

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