Asian commission gets funding boost, but can’t hire staff

After more than a decade of efforts to launch a full-blown advocacy agency for Connecticut’s growing Asian community, organizers finally won a budget allocation this year that would allow them to hire an executive director–only to find themselves barred from spending it.

Republican state legislative leaders not only blocked the Asian Pacific American Commission’s request to hire its first executive director, but also to refill a newly created vacancy in its only other paid position — returning the group to its earlier status as a collection of unpaid volunteers.

“We finally have an identify, a place for people to call,” commission member William Howe of Glastonbury said. “And now to have the funds and not be allowed to hire the staffing is grossly unfair. We were floored.”

The Office of Legislative Management, the legislature’s chief administrative arm, notified the legislative commission by email over last weekend that its request to fill two positions had been denied.

Agencies within the Legislative Branch must submit requests to fill vacancies with the Committee on Legislative Management, and particularly to its Personnel Policy Subcommittee, which is comprised of the top six legislative leaders including: the majority and minority leaders from both the House and Senate, as well as the House speaker and the Senate president pro tem.

Democrats, who control both chambers, hold four of the six seats on the subcommittee. But all requests to hire must have support from at least lawmaker from each party, allowing either side to block any hire if their are unified in their opposition.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, could not be reached for comment Monday.

But House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, said Republican opposition “has absolutely nothing to do with the Asian Pacific American Commission’s mission or its cause. There is a management history here that is very disturbing.”

After about eight years of lobbying by advocates from clubs, civic groups, churches and other organizations in the Asian community, the commission was created in statute in 2008 by the General Assembly and then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell. But it quickly was stymied financially as Connecticut’s economy fell into recession. Commission funding was limited to between $25,000 and $28,000 in its first two fiscal years — symbolic figures meant more as a fiscal placeholder, and the money never was actually allocated.

But the legislature and Rell increased the commission’s budget to $52,310 in 2010-11 — enough for one hire, though not an executive director.

Rather than wait another year for enough funding to hire a director, the group decided to secure a fiscal foothold and put a professional face on their organization, filling a secondary post with the hire of its first legislative analyst.

That move didn’t sit right with Cafero, though Republican leaders didn’t block it one year ago. But Cafero said there still has been no explanation why an analyst was hired before a director, who presumably would be the logical first step and to help shape the agency’s mission and direction.

“This whole thing smelled to me,” he said. “Who is this analyst reporting to if there is no director? Who was providing the direction?”

The commission convinced the legislature and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to include $158,172 in the current budget, which it wants to use both to hire and executive director and a new analyst. Havnurkar left over the summer to take a post with the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies in Washington, D.C.

Cafero added that coming off the heels of a $1.5 billion tax increase, a new report of more than $250 million in overtime spending across all state government last year, and continued concerns about the state budget, legislators must take that all funds are being spent wisely. “We’ve got to have somebody watching the checkbook.”

But Howe said the analyst post, which was held last year by Nakul Havnurkar of Berlin, a former elections researcher for the secretary of the state’s office, played a key role in establishing the commission’s broader concerns,

U.S. Census figures show Connecticut had more than 127,000 residents in 2010  whose ancestry traces back to the planet’s largest continent, up nearly 30 percent from 2000.

Asia covers 30 percent of the world’s land mass and contais 60 percent of its people. The breadth of religions, languages, dialects and cultural traditions is staggering, said Angela Rola of Windham, a commission member and director of the Asian-American Cultural Center at the University of Connecticut’s main campus in Storrs.

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, she said.

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.

This ultimately cannot be accomplished without an executive director, Howe said.

“Nakul worked very hard and we were able to work well together with the other commissions” advocating for racial and ethnic minorities, women, children and the elderly, as well as with legislative committees, Howe said. “Now we have a voice. But we still really need someone with experience not only with the legislature, but with the community.”