Vaccination exemptions were one of the larger topics spoken of Friday morning at the community coffee held by Darien and Norwalk state leaders.

Speaking at the coffee, which was held at the Darien Diner and attended by about 30 people, was Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, Sen. Carlo Leone, and State Rep. Matt Blumenthal.

Blumenthal spoke in support of vaccinations.

“We need to make sure as a matter of public health that we maintain vaccination rates that are going to protect our kids,” Blumenthal said. “We need to keep up with the latest science in doing so, and as it stands right now, our religious exemption is far too broad and doesn’t require any back up or elucidation.”

Leone said while he completely understands people’s religious needs for what they believe in, “on the flip side, I know that vaccinations work for a lot of people and protect the public health and the public at large.”

He continued that as public and elected officials, they have an obligation to protect the general health and general welfare.

He added, “We also want to be cognizant of a person’s individual rights because that’s what our country and our state has been built on.”

Opioid crisis

Brian Merlin of Stamford, who told The Darien Times he has plans to run against Congressman Jim Himes, said he wanted to know what the state will be doing to stop the Opioid crisis.

In a prior story, Merlin has said he struggles with drug addiction and has friends who are dying from opioid addiction.

“We need justice and accountability and I’d like to see you fight for this as hard as our activists are,” Merlin said. “In the long term, millions will die from this.” Many in the audience clapped after he spoke.

In response, Leone said the state has been doing a lot to tighten up the rules on opioids and how they’re dispensed, making sure that they can’t just be given open-ended prescriptions any longer.

“We are going to continue to push all the tools that we may have at the state level to make sure that we can at least provide Connecticut citizens the most comfort, and at the same time have access to the medication they may need for the ills that they have,” Leone said. “We know that those opioids are highly addictive and we no longer can prescribe them as if they’re not.”

School consolidation

In regard to school consolidation, Duff said change is needed. “We can’t continue to do things the way we’ve always done things. We can’t have a president at each community college. We cant have the [same number of] staff.”

Duff continued: “Do we provide the resources to keep it the way it always was or do we find a model that may be something that is more manageable from a budgetary standpoint?”

He added that those who attend community college are not traditional students. They may not have transportation, or are working two jobs while going to school.

He said he doesn’t want to sacrifice the community college system at all, when it comes to consolidation. “These schools transform people’s lives in moving them up the economic ladder,” he said

Leone said it comes down to the fact that Connecticut is a small state with a lot of institutions, having evolved over time. “It came down to the cost structure and the bureaucracy level of it all,” he said.

“If the state doesn’t subsidize it, that means the only way for the schools to continue to operate is to raise tuition, and that defeats the whole purpose of making it affordable,” he added. “If you can get rid of the higher administrative costs and throw all those monies to the students, that would be the best scenario.”

School regionalization

Darien Republican Town Committee Chairman Chris Taylor asked Duff, if or when a bill on school regionalization that would affect Darien schools comes to the floor, would he vote against it?

To which Duff responded, “there’s never been a bill to affect Darien regionalization or schools. Let’s stop that kind of nonsense and talk like somehow there’s a conspiracy against our school districts. There’s not.”

After the coffee, Darien resident Randy Klein, who is a member of the Action Network of Darien Democrats, told The Darien Times that it’s unfortunate that “there are some who are constantly looking in the rearview mirror when it comes to the school regionalization issue. That’s a dead issue that appears to be using fear as a mechanism. It never affected Darien. It’s off the table. Let’s look forward about what we can do as a state.”

However, Republican Town Committee Chairman Chris Taylor told The Darien Times he was disappointed that Duff “danced around the issue,” in regard to his question.

“School regionalization is a major issue,” Taylor said. “You continue to see the left and the right in Darien come together against school regionalization — anything that would affect our schools in Darien. It is a major issue and they would not give us an answer.”

New Norwalk High School

In regard to Duff’s recently announced plans to build a new Norwalk High School, he said it is a “great project.”

He said it will bring 100 students from Bridgeport, Stamford, and local areas to our P-TECH [ Pathways in Technology Early College High School], which provides an associate’s degree for free from Norwalk Community College on engineering.

“You can bring the students into those communities who want to enjoy that experience, so that is what we should be doing as a state, making smart decisions using the resources that we have and ensuring that our kids are getting a good 21st century education,” he said.

Legislative session

The legislative sessions begins on Wednesday, Feb. 5, and continues for about 13 weeks.

According to Duff, issues that were accomplished during the last session include “having a balanced budget on time and having the state’s largest rainy day fund.”

“Our growth is one of the smallest in the country on our budget. We continue to pay down our long-term debts, we’re working on tackling transportation. We have raised the minimum wage. We are going to be embarking on paid family leave in this state,” he said.

Blumenthal said he learned in his first session at the legislature is “we look at Washington and we see a whole lot of nothing getting done right now.”

“You look at state capitols around the country, especially here in Connecticut — that’s where the action is happening. That’s where bills are getting passed, that’s where individual legislatures have a real influence.”

He said he is looking forward to working on bills that can lower the cost of health care, prescription drugs, increased access to health insurance, legalizing sports vetting in the state, and legalizing the adult use of canibus.

“I’m looking forward to continuing Connecticut’s role as one of the leaders in the fight against gun violence and for public safety and for criminal justice reform and smart justice,” he said.

sfox@darientimes.com