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February 5, 2024

Commerce Committee eyes bills to address state’s workforce shortage, expand student-entrepreneur visa program

Sen. Joan Hartley (D-Waterbury) and Rep. Stephen Meskers (D-Greenwich)

With a short legislative session set to get underway this week, the business community will keep close tabs on the General Assembly’s Commerce Committee, where key proposals related to economic and workforce development, tax credits and other private-sector issues originate.

The committee is led by co-chairs Sen. Joan Hartley (D-Waterbury) and Rep. Stephen Meskers (D-Greenwich), who said they expect to see proposals this session that address the state’s workforce shortage and expand a student-visa program that aims to bring more immigrant-entrepreneurs to the state.

“If you talk to manufacturers … their greatest pressure is skilled workforce,” Hartley said. “And that just speaks to the overall mission of the Commerce Committee, which is competitiveness: making sure that the state of Connecticut is in a place to continue its distinction of being a place with high-level and high-skilled employees and a competitive environment.”

Hartley, a former teacher, has been a senator since 2000, after serving in the state House of Representatives for 16 years prior to that.

Meskers has a private-sector background, with a more than 35-year career in corporate lending, bankruptcy and international bond sales. He’s worked at companies such as Banco Santander and Crédit Agricole CIB.

The Commerce Committee also has oversight of tax credit, incentive and other programs offered by the state Department of Economic and Community Development and Connecticut Innovations, the state’s quasi-public venture capital investor.

Working group follow-ups

The Commerce Committee created three working groups last year to better flesh out potential legislative proposals. Recommendations from those groups will be made public during the early part of the 2024 session and likely lead to new bills, Hartley said.

One working group is exploring the feasibility of establishing a “global entrepreneurs in residence” program in Connecticut that would aim to increase the number of H-1B visa holders in the state.

The concept is modeled after Massachusetts’ global entrepreneur in residence program, which allows foreign entrepreneurs to qualify for an H-1B visa through partial employment at a university.

The H-1B visa program is used by U.S. employers to hire foreign workers for specialty jobs that require at least a bachelor’s degree. The federal government, through a lottery system, issues only 85,000 H-1B visas per year.

However, universities are exempt from annual federal H-1B visa caps, which makes an entrepreneurs in residence program attractive.

The Commerce Committee also established an advanced manufacturing training and education working group. It’s exploring ways the state can facilitate the expansion of an advanced manufacturing technology center at one of Connecticut’s regional community or technical colleges.

The new center would offer increased job-related training and advanced technology education, something that’s been a point of emphasis in Connecticut as the manufacturing industry evolves.

“This one kind of hits two real pressure points: getting more manufacturing apprenticeships in the pipeline, and also growing the enrollment in our community colleges,” Hartley said.

Meskers said he’s hoping the state finds university partners and workforce groups to collaborate on an advanced manufacturing and robotics-related hub.

The final working group is reviewing the state’s role in approving tax credits and grants for the redevelopment of historic properties — a process some developers and municipal officials say is too burdensome and unpredictable and can significantly delay or even block economic development projects.

The working group was created in 2023 by the state legislature, which considered, but did not pass, a bill that would have created a third-party appeals process for decisions made by the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).

SHPO administers a range of federal and state programs that identify, register and protect historic buildings. It also oversees the state’s historic rehabilitation tax credit program, a crucial funding source used by developers and municipalities to finance property redevelopments, including some of the office-to-apartment conversions that have occurred in downtown Hartford.

The SHPO working group will recommend ways to make the SHPO approval process more transparent, Hartley said.

“We’re trying to understand what the path is and where the opportunities are for us to simplify and update the state’s SHPO process, recognizing the importance and the significance of historic preservation, but also not at the expense of the overall state economic development,” Hartley said. “That common ground is really what we’ve been trying to attain.”

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