- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 28, 2018

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Connecticut lawmakers are considering whether to spend millions of dollars to help the thousands of families from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands who’ve sought refuge in the state since Hurricane Maria hit last September.

More than 100 people turned out Wednesday for a rally on the state Capitol steps, voicing support for legislation that would provide $2.5 million to school districts, nonprofit agencies and other groups assisting the hurricane victims. It’s one of several proposals being considered by state legislators this session, in a state where Puerto Ricans represent more than 8 percent of the total population.

The legislation comes as cities such as Hartford and New Haven have seen an influx of hundreds of new students, many non-English speaking. At the same time, federal rental housing assistance for some evacuees has expired or is about to expire.

“We need this help immediately,” said Wildaliz Bermudez, a member of the Hartford City Council told the crowd. Her financially struggling city has spent more than $1 million to educate more than 400 students who came to Connecticut to escape the storm’s devastation and its aftermath, including a lack of electricity in many places on the islands.

Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy included $400,000 in his budget to provide rental assistance, one of a handful of new spending initiatives. Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, sponsored two bills this session. One proposes setting aside the $2.5 million to help provide rental assistance, reimburse school districts like Hartford, and to assist nonprofit agencies and family resource centers serving the families. His other proposal addresses the distribution of state aid to cities and towns with large populations of evacuees.

Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano of North Haven expressed empathy for the evacuees, but noted the state continues to face budget deficits, coupled with many other needs such as a waiting list for residential services for people with developmental disabilities.

“Before we start venturing into another area - and I’m very sympathetic to the cause - we need to take care of the people we made promises to that were never fulfilled,” Fasano said.

Candelaria contends Connecticut should help the evacuees because they are U.S. citizens and many are family members of Connecticut residents that have been contributing to the state’s economy for years.

“They decided to come to this state because they felt comfortable in Connecticut because they have relatives and family here,” he said, adding how there also are humanitarian arguments in support of spending the money.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who is considering a possible run as a Democratic candidate for governor, said it’s difficult to know exactly how many displaced people have come to Hartford and the other cities. He said many are temporarily living with friends and family.

At times, as many as 30 families have stayed at a Hartford hotel, Bronin said. There are about 15 families living there now. He said some found permanent housing, while others returned to Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, new families have recently arrived in Hartford and received help from the city.

“We have a very large Puerto Rican community. We’re proud to fulfill our responsibility of making sure each of those kids has a place in the Hartford school system,” Bronin said. “But I hope that statewide there’s a recognition that we all have an obligation to support these fellow American citizens who have come to our community after a devastating hurricane.”

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