Session’s final night produces drama, intrigue — and some legislation

The General Assembly delivered its annual dose of drama and deals, seasoned by a few grudges, on the final day of the annual legislative session as union and hospital lobbyists nearly came to blows outside the Senate, and Senate Democrats publicly snubbed House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, in the session’s last hour.

House Republicans slowed business after learning that Senate Democrats would not honor their deal with House Democrats on a small issue, the legalization of Sunday bow hunting of deer. But the major House-Senate conflict was a Democratic squabble as the Senate killed Sharkey’s proposal to phase out the property tax on cars.

“There were certainly some misgivings in the Senate,” Sharkey said of his proposal. “I can’t believe they would not want to repeal the most regressive and most hated tax in Connecticut.”

The House adopted the repeal plan late Tuesday. When it became clear the Senate would not take up the measure Tuesday, Sharkey tried unsuccessfully to get the plan included in an omnibus budget implementer bill.

Implenters ostensibly are technical bills necessary to make the budget work, but they traditionally are used by leadership to do favors large and small, to save legislative ideas otherwise destined to die from inaction as the clock strikes 12 and, every so often, to make mischief.

As the clock moved toward the constitutional adjournment deadline of midnight, the corridors of the State Capitol became energized with grievances petty and grand. With the Senate’s slights of the House, the House began searching for its own means of retribution — and to kill enough bills to possibly force a special session.

An unrelated drama pitted lobbyists for the SEIU, a union representing health care workers, against lobbyists for Waterbury and Bristol hospitals, each of which are in the process of being purchased by a for-profit corporation, Vanguard.

An amendment creating a governance structure for for-profit hospitals that the hospital lobbyists say mirrors the current state legal structure for nonprofits appeared to take the unions by surprise, sparking profane exchanges and, later, a calmer scrum of lobbyists for both sides.

Legislators legalized mixed martial arts, imposed new residential safety rules in response to a fatal fire and adopted a new comprehensive energy strategy that got lukewarm reviews. But action on those bills was the prelude to the main event — passage of the end-of-session legislative catch-all known as implementer bills.

Thinking they had spotted a major piece of mischief in a draft budget policy bill — language that would have sped up the legalization of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, the House Republican minority threatened to end the session with a filibuster.

Democrats called the language a mistake, and it was quickly deleted.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, then announced that his caucus wouldn’t block a second provision that had sparked a filibuster threat — a measure that would allow the state to spend $750 million in new financing pledged to a special budget reserve.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate said they did not know who inserted the driver’s license language in the bill or why.

“The little budget implementer fairy came down and worked its way into” the bill, Cafero told reporters just after 3 p.m. outside the Hall of the House. “I was told they have every intention of taking it out.”

Two hours earlier, though, the GOP leader had accused majority Democrats in the legislature of “an outrageous power grab.”

Cafero was infuriated by draft bill language that moved up the effective date for legalizing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants from Jan. 1, 2015, to next month.

Republicans overwhelmingly oppose legalization, but did appreciate the 2015 implementation date, Cafero said, since it gave time for a task force to study the issue and recommend ways to “fine tune” the implementation process.

Cafero also objected to a second Democrat-sponsored measure, but he didn’t get his way on that one.

A major bonding package approved late Tuesday in the Senate orders $750 million in borrowing to help with Malloy’s promised conversion of state finances to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. If GAAP standards are used, state finances are $1.2 billion in the red.

By borrowing — rather than saving — to close almost two-thirds of the GAAP deficit, state government would run up about $200 million in interest costs.

But the silver lining to borrowing, according to Malloy and Democratic lawmakers, is it “locks” the state into resolving the GAAP issue. The state would pledge in its bond covenant — effectively a contract with the investors who buy its bonds — to use the proceeds only to address the GAAP problem, they said.

But the bill allows the state to spend the borrowed GAAP dollars if the governor declares “an emergency or the existence of extraordinary circumstances,” and if three-fifths of the House and Senate agree. Democrats control three-fifths of both chambers.

But after Democrats relented on the driver’s license issue, Cafero allowed a vote on the GAAP bonding, which then passed in the House.

Other provisions of the implementer bill would:

  • Give state judges their first pay raises in seven years. Judges’ salaries jump 5.3 percent on July 1 and again by 5.3 percent one year later.
  • Transfer $2.3 million from state lottery proceeds to treatment programs for chronic gamblers. Sources said gambling opponents in the legislature demanded this in exchange for the last-minute decision to launch a Keno lottery game in the new budget.
  • Weaken the authority of a council that oversees the state’s highly regarded Behavioral Health Partnership, which covers mental health and addiction services for people covered by Medicaid and children receiving services from the Department of Children and Families. The bill specifically removes the council’s authority to order public hearings to challenge the rates the state pays to health care providers.
  • Require the probate court system to share any surplus with the state budget’s general fund whenever the system’s fund balance exceeds 15 percent of its annual spending.
  • Authorize five state agency and division heads to develop a plan to expand supportive housing services.
  • Exempt fuel used for municipal school buses from one of the largest fuel tax hikes in state history. Connecticut’s wholesale tax on gasoline and several other fuels jumps by one-sixth July 1, an increase expected to add nearly 4 cents per gallon to the price of gasoline.
  • Spend up to $50,000 to launch a plan to promote growth of bioscience industries in southeastern Connecticut.
  • Allow Comptroller Kevin Lembo to develop a wellness program for municipal employees similar to the health enhancement plan state worker unions approved two years ago in a concessions agreement.
  • Allow the governor’s budget director to craft a plan for cities and towns to use state road repair grants for non-transportation purposes.
  • Extend the governor’s “First Five” initiative, which invests in companies creating hundreds of new jobs, for two more years, extending the program through June 2015.
  • Expand from one to three communities a state pilot program to develop a plan to tax land at a higher rate than buildings.

The implementer repealed a bill that gave the University of Connecticut’s police chief the authority to hire officers without state oversight.

With nearly half of UConn’s full-time police positions vacant, lawmakers earlier this year changed state law to give the system’s police chief the ability to hire new officers without delay.

It makes a number of education policy changes:

  • The bill  has the State Department of Education picking up the total tuition costs for preschool students in an integrated magnet school, a response to a court-ordered deadline to reduce racial isolation of Hartford’s minority school population.
  • The bill changes how the state calculates what each city and town will receive to pay for education, to direct future increases in funding to districts with the lowest-income residents. Of the $50.8 million in new funding for the Education Cost Sharing grant — the principal grant for education — almost all is directed at the 30 lowest-performing districts. No district will receive less funding than it did this year.
  • The bill reduced the scheduled increase the state’s existing charter schools were set to receive for the next two school years. Charter schools will receive $10,500 for each student they enroll next school year. The budget does provide for a handful of new charter schools to open and funding for enrollment to expand in the state’s existing charter schools.
  • It creates the Governor’s Scholarship Program, which rolls several state-funded financial aid programs administered by various public and private colleges into one state-run program. When consolidating the program into one, state funding is cut.
  • It also requires every school board, including charters, to post on their website their budgets, including salaries, benefits, tuition and other expenses beginning July 1. 

Bills that didn’t survive

One bill that was sparked by last December’s fatal shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown — a measure to expand when police and firefighters could claim workers’ compensation benefits for mental illness — died on the Senate calendar.

The workers’ comp system doesn’t recognize post-traumatic stress disorder, and limits benefits for mental illness to police who have been subjected to a violent act, or to firefighters who witness a colleague killed in the line of duty.

Sen. Catherine Osten, D-Sprague, spearheaded a measure that would have broadened eligibility to include witnessing the immediate aftermath of a death or maiming.

“I was disappointed,” said Osten, a former state correction officer supervisor. “I don’t think people take seriously the issue of mental health. I will revisit it again.”

“We are very pleased that the General Assembly decided not to enact two new costly unfunded mandates (involving) police officers and firefighters,” said James Finley, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

Capitol Bureau Chief Mark Pazniokas contributed to this report.