Conn. Lawmaker Cites State’s Persistent Budget Problems For Her Departure

Sep 19, 2016

State Rep. Roberta Willis (D-64), house chair of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, will be leaving the General Assembly in January after 16 years representing nine towns in northwestern Conn. Willis is one of the longest serving committee chairs in the legislature.
Credit Office of Conn. State Rep. Roberta Willis

Many Connecticut veteran lawmakers are deciding to sit out the 2016 campaign season. Most are not running for office because they've had their fill of partisan politics. It's the culmination of tough legislative sessions in which state lawmakers have had to grapple with growing state budget deficits. 

One of those lawmakers is Representative Roberta Willis, a Democrat from Salisbury in the northwestern corner of the state. Willis is retiring after 16 years in the state House of Representatives.

WSHU’s Senior Political Reporter Ebong Udoma spoke with Willis about her long career in the House and her decision to retire.

ROBERTA: I feel that the political world is a little upside down, and so it was a good time to exit.

EBONG: By upside down, what do you mean?

ROBERTA: I mean on the national front, the national conversation is very discouraging. And on the state level it’s frustrating as well.

EBONG: In the past few years we’ve had to deal with huge deficits in Connecticut and trying to set our financial house in order. Has that been part of your frustration?

ROBERTA: Well it is, because explaining to constituents why we are in this fiscal crisis, trying to describe the budget situation is really not for the faint of heart. And it doesn’t lend itself to a sound bite. It is a complicated issue to where we are today.

EBONG: You are co-chair of the Higher Education Committee. What has been your frustration dealing with funding for higher education?

ROBERTA: Well higher education in Connecticut, which is not much different than other states across the country, has seen less funding from the state and that has sadly resulted in tuition having to go up. So that is truly discouraging for me. We’ve made gains in terms of achievement but in terms of cost and affordability for Connecticut students, that has become problematic.

EBONG: What would be your advice to someone who is trying to deal with the fiscal situation we have in Connecticut right now? What has to be done going forward?

ROBERTA: It took us years to get into this mess, if I might say, and it’s going to take us a while to get out of it. And a lot of it is not our own doing. Its economic forces that are…you know Connecticut is not an island. There are global forces and national forces that are at work to influence Connecticut‘s economy. You know our population trends are changing. Connecticut was primarily considered a suburban state and really built itself up on that. And now we are seeing the change where more people are moving to urban areas. So that is some that has affected Connecticut as well.

EBONG: Now let's talk more personally, what drove you to run for office and become a member of the legislature in the first place. And what do you think you’ve been able to achieve in your 16 years?

ROBERTA: You know I came from a generation where you felt you had to be involved and you had to contribute and make a difference. So I was interested in the environment and women’s issues and civil rights. And those sort of directed to the next step which is running for public office.

I feel like over the last 16 years we’ve made a lot of progress in those areas. What we’ve done on education, we are closing the achievement gap somewhat. We started the Community Investment Act, which has funded land preservation, affordable housing, open space, and that’s quite an accomplishment. We did civil unions and same sex marriage, we abolished the death penalty, we did election reform with campaign financing, so that’s another reason why I feel comfortable leaving at this time. That I feel I have been part of something that has made a difference, so I can feel good looking back.

EBONG: Rep. Willis thank you so much for joining us.