Legislators scrambled Wednesday to finish their work on the final day of the 2013 session – granting final approval for more than $2 billion in bond projects, allowing police to withhold crime-scene photographs of murder victims, and legalizing the fast-growing sport of mixed martial arts.
Lawmakers also set aside up to $50 million for a new school at Sandy Hook in Newtown and accepted $35 million from the embattled Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority in exchange for assuming the legal liability for closing landfills in Hartford, Waterbury, Shelton and Ellington. They also raised salaries for judges by more than 10 percent by July 2014 and rejected an amendment that would have tightened conflicts of interest among legislators.
Acting with little sleep, lawmakers pushed toward the culmination of five months of work on a wide variety of topics. Under the state's Constitution, any bills that failed to pass by midnight must wait until the next session.
It was still dark outside the Capitol when the action began – at breakneck speed. Between 1:17 and 2 a.m. Wednesday, both the House of Representatives and the Senate approved a controversial freedom of information bill that was sought by the families of 20 children and six women killed in the Newtown massacre on Dec. 14. Within 12 hours, the bill was signed into law without ceremony by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy – completing a frenetic conclusion to more than a month of secret negotiations on the measure that bypassed the normal legislative process.
The new law says that police can withhold any crime-scene photos and videos that "could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the victim or the victim's surviving family members.''
Many lawmakers were still at the Capitol at 2 a.m. Wednesday, and then they returned later that morning to begin deliberations once again. The House then debated until the midnight deadline as they prepared to hear a speech by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy early Thursday.
Malloy harkened back to the beginning of the session, which was dominated by the legislature's response to the Newtown shootings.
"Every one of us would give anything to go back to December 14 and prevent what happened that day. But we can't,'' Malloy s early Thursday in a six-minute speech. "The best we can do is to go forward in a way that honors those we've lost. And in the halls of the Capitol this session, we've seen that commitment to push forward. We saw it in the Newtown families, whose continued presence here has been an inspiration to all of us.''
He added, "Make no mistake about it – the bipartisan gun violence prevention bill we passed will make our state safer. The funding we secured for Project Longevity and other violence reduction efforts will help cities fight senseless violence on our streets. The debate on gun violence in America is by no means over. We still have much work to do as a nation. But we did make progress here in Connecticut. We accomplished these things. And by and large, we did them together on a bipartisan basis.''
Lawmakers gave final approval to more than $2 billion in new state borrowing for construction and other projects, including open space acquisition, farmland preservation, school construction, economic development projects, and transportation improvements.
The package includes $35 million for improvements to the XL Center. It also provides money for a study to widen the busy I-91 and I-84 interchange in Hartford, calls for a study of the heavily used commuter railroad tracks between New York and New Haven. Small airports around the state that had their funding threatened by recent federal budget cuts would also receive grants-in-aid.
Rep. Livvy Floren, a Greenwich Republican who has opposed various spending projects, broke with her party in supporting the measure.
"I've now realized that we can never let the perfect become the enemy of the good," she said.
But other House Republicans took issue with the package because the state is planning to borrow $750 million to pay down an accumulated deficit of $1.2 billion it owes under generally accepted accounting practices, known as GAAP.
Deputy Republican Leader Vincent Candelora likened the new borrowing to homeowners taking out a second mortgage to make monthly payments on their first loan. Republicans maintain that the state's new budget doesn't even comply with the GAAP rules because of how it accounts for the state's Medicaid costs.
They also took issue with a part of the GAAP-paydown plan that allows the governor to reduce the state's payments on those bonds if the state begins running a budget deficit. Such a move would require a super majority vote in the legislature. GOP lawmakers complained that that structure is similar to the state's spending cap, which they have said was manipulated during the budget-crafting process.
But Malloy and Democrats argue that the state has repeatedly postponed GAAP accounting, pushing it back on a regular basis under former Republican governors and the Democratic-controlled legislature during those years. Malloy repeatedly talked about GAAP during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, and one of his first acts in office was signing an executive order regarding the accounting method. Legislators have been postponing GAAP since the days of Gov. Lowell P. Weicker, when the legislature voted in 1993 to make the accounting change starting July 1, 1995. But the change was never fully implemented.
The House backed the bond package 99 to 43, mostly along party lines after three hours of debate. The bill passed the Senate 21 to 14 along strict party lines Tuesday night and now goes to the governor for his signature.
The Newtown school massacre overshadowed the entire legislative session, and it continued to occupy the attention of lawmakers in the waning hours.
On Wednesday, in addition to passing a law blocking the public disclosure of photos and other records of homicide victims, the legislature authorized up to $50 million in bond funds to raze and Sandy Hook Elementary School and build a new school. Newtown's typical state reimbursement rate for school constriction projects is 24.64 percent.
"The hope is that by putting it in the bonding package, it will allow us the flexibility to access the money earlier, but also access federal dollars to help defray the costs for the new school at Sandy Hook," said Senate Republican leader John McKinney, who represents Newtown.
Three federal lawmakers — Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and Rep. Elizabeth Esty — are pursuing legislation that would allow the use of federal dollars to help cover the construction costs. But federal money has never been used to pay for school buildings, and the lawmakers acknowledged that their proposal is "a heavy lift."
"I don't underestimate the difficulty of getting anything done in Washington, D.C.," McKinney said. "But what happened in Sandy Hook was unprecedented. … I think we should be hopeful that they'll bring home some money."
The last day of the regular session started off with a scramble over a controversial bill to allow drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants. An obscure sentence that was buried in a highly detailed "implementer" bill would have changed the effective date of the drivers' licenses program from January 2015 to July 1.
The sentence was buried on page 355 of a 508-page bill, but it was caught by House Republican chief counsel Deborah Hutton. Hutton has been reading bills at the Capitol for the 22 years, and her spotting of the sentence prompted the proposal to be withdrawn.
But no one in the Capitol admitted to inserting the provision into the gigantic bill that Republicans saw for the first time on Wednesday morning. All legislators and staffers who were interviewed backed away from the proposal, saying they were not involved.
Once the controversial sentence came out, the House debated for only several minutes before approving the implementer bill 92 to 53 with five members absent on a mostly party line vote at about 10:10 p.m. Wednesday. It passed soon after in the Senate as Democratic Sen. Gayle Slossberg joined with Republicans against it.
During this year's session, former Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley of Greenwich ran into a firestorm of protest from both Democrats and Republicans when he testified that various legislators had conflicts of interest because their employment conflicted with their legislative duties. He said they should be prevented from working for firms that lobby the legislature, as well as public employee unions that have issues in front of the General Assembly.
Sen. Joe Markley, a Southington Republican, offered an amendment Wednesday night that codified many of Foley's thoughts in an effort to improve ethical practices at the Capitol. The measure was rejected 21 to 14 on strict party lines as Democrats said the amendment was flawed, and they needed to send the bill to the House on the last night of the legislature without a controversial amendment.
"The general public has very much lost confidence in our integrity,'' Markley told his colleagues on the Senate floor after 8 p.m. "I was surprised at the way [Foley] was handled for what I thought was an essentially good idea. I was rather amazed at the resistance it attracted.''
He added, "My point is not to catch anyone. The point of the law is not to create lawbreakers, but to enable good behavior.''
Haddam Land Swap' Repealed
Both the House and Senate Wednesday voted to repeal the 2011 legislation that provided for the so-called Haddam land swap — a controversial deal approved by lawmakers to let private developers acquire 17 acres of state-owned land overlooking the Connecticut River in exchange for 87 acres of woods they owned elsewhere in town. Many local residents and statewide conservationists opposed it.
The swap died last year when economic factors made the developers unwilling to go through with it. But opponents worried that the deal could be revived if the 2011 legal language weren't wiped from the statutes. The House member who represents Haddam, Democratic Rep. Philip J. Miller, put together the repeal legislation as part of a larger land conveyance bill under which the state disposes of surplus properties. The local state senator, Republican Art Linares, also argued in favor of the repeal in the upper chamber Wednesday.
Tougher Texting Penalties
Lawmakers also approved tougher penalties for people who text while driving. The Senate voted 26-9 to pass a wide-ranging transportation bill that increases the fines for texting, as well as other fees.
The measure would increase the fine for a first offense from $125 to $150. Fines for second and third offenses would go from $250 to $400, and $300 to $500. People who text while driving would also be assessed one point on their driving record and the violation would also show up when insurance companies ask for drivers' information.
The legislation now goes to the governor. The tougher penalties come as New York state is also looking to crack down on drivers who text behind the wheel. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said tougher penalties will take effect there Saturday.
In other matters, salaries for judges would increase by 5.3 percent next month and then another 5.3 percent on July 1, 2014. Superior Court judges are currently paid $146,780 per year, and that would rise to $162,751 by July 2014. The chief justice of the State Supreme Court would rise from $175,645 to $194,757 by the next fiscal year.
Mixed Martial Arts
The Senate also gave final approval to a measure that legalizes and regulates the fast growing sport of mixed martial arts.
If the governor signs the bill, Connecticut will join 48 other states that permit MMA competitions, leaving New York as the lone holdout. A spokesman said the governor will review it when it gets to his desk.
Efforts to legalize MMA coasted through the House last year but stalled in the Senate. This year, the bill passed in the Senate 26 to 9, with the chamber's two top leaders, Democrats Donald E. Williams Jr. and Martin M. Looney, voting against it.
MMA incorporates techniques from wrestling, judo, karate, taekwondo and other martial arts. The bill allows the state to tax and regulate MMA matches. It gives the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection the power to inspect venues where the competitions are held and directs the commissioner to devise rules for competition.
Those behind the drive to bring the sport to the state couched their argument in economic development terms. Sen. Andres Ayala Jr., D-Bridgeport, predicted MMA matches will draw crowds of people to his city, pumping tens of thousands of dollars into restaurants and hotels. "This is a good business bill,'' he said.
Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, noted that MMA matches are already held at the state's casinos. "Why not allow the communities that are struggling economically to benefit?" he asked.
But critics say they are put off by the raw intensity of the sport. Sen. Beth Bye, a West Hartford Democrat who spent 30 years as an educator, said MMA is emblematic of "a culture of violence."
Courant staff writers Matthew Sturdevant and Jenny Wilson contributed to this story.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun