As the 2017 legislative session opens: What to know

The 2017 legislative session begins today, kicking off a five-month frenzy as lawmakers work to craft a budget in the face of bleak fiscal problems and debate topics ranging from school funding to legalizing pot.

Here’s a look at what to expect.

The cast of characters
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, left, and Republican Leader Len Fasano in a file photo from the 2016 session.

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Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, left, and Republican Leader Len Fasano in a file photo from the 2016 session.

After years of Democrat rule, the 36-member state Senate has an even number of Democrats and Republicans following a GOP pickup of three seats in November. Democrats still hold an edge thanks to Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, the Democrat who serves as president of the chamber and can cast tie-breaking votes. But that edge relies on winning the vote of every Democratic senator, and their caucus includes at least a couple of mavericks, particularly on budget issues.

So how will things work in the (mostly) evenly divided Senate?

Under a deal reached in December, Republicans will get more authority, allowing them to force a vote on what business can come before the Senate. At the committee level, GOP senators will also gain a larger role; each legislative committee will have two co-chairs from the Senate – one from each party – as well as a House co-chair, giving Republicans more influence over what bills move forward.

House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, the incoming speaker.

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, the incoming speaker.

As part of the deal, Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, will remain the top senator, but Len Fasano of North Haven, formerly the chamber’s minority leader, will be known as the Republican president pro tem.

Looney and Fasano differ on politics, but have a history of working together, including on major health care legislation. But how active Looney will be this year, particularly early in the session, remains an open question. He received a kidney transplant in December, a procedure with a typical recovery time of three to eight weeks. (Before going to the hospital, he did propose some legislation – see more on that below.)

The House also will have some new faces, as well as new leadership. Democrats will remain in control, but with a narrower majority – 78 to 72 – after Republicans gained eight seats. (There will be one vacant seat: Stephen Dargan, a Democrat from West Haven, won re-election but has accepted a new job and is not being sworn in. Malloy is appointing him to the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles.)

File Photo

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides

The new House speaker is Democrat Joe Aresimowicz of Berlin – nicknamed “Joe A to Z.” Like many legislators, he holds another job outside the General Assembly, but his employment has drawn more attention than most. He’s the education coordinator for AFSCME, the powerful labor union that represents thousands of state employees. The Republican State Central Committee adopted a resolution that called Aresimowicz’s job “an untenable conflict” at a time when the cost of labor agreements is likely to be a big issue for lawmakers. The Office of State Ethics has told Aresimowicz that nothing in the state ethics code would prohibit him from holding both his union job and the speaker position.

House Republicans, meanwhile, will continue to be led by Themis Klarides of Derby. Her sister Nicole Klarides-Ditria is among the 35 new legislators taking office Wednesday.

You can learn more about all 187 state legislators – and find out which ones represent you – in The Mirror’s political guide, newly updated for 2017.

The budget

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will propose his two-year budget Feb. 8. Once again, the process of crafting a budget is expected to be less than pleasant: Nonpartisan analysts have projected a $1.45 billion deficit in the upcoming fiscal year, and that’s after several years of unpopular cuts and multiple unpopular tax hikes.

In an interview with The Mirror last month, budget director Benjamin Barnes offered a bleak picture, suggesting that it will be difficult to avoid cuts to municipal aid, social services and higher education, as well as state employee layoffs. And Barnes said the administration is seeking concessions from state employee unions – something union leaders say should be avoided by raising taxes on the wealthy and eliminating certain tax exemptions and subsidies. The unions’ current pension and health insurance deal runs through 2022, but there could be pressure to re-open it. Last year, legislative leaders from both parties called for, among other things, raising health insurance co-pays. (Here’s a look at what’s in the state employee health plan and how it compares to others.)

Hot topics

marijuana_plantsSeveral legislators tried unsuccessfully last year to push forward a bill to legalize the recreational use of marijuana (and bring the state a new source of tax money). Expect another try this year, with more momentum. Looney filed a bill in December to legalize pot, giving the matter at least some leadership support. And Massachusetts residents voted in November to legalize the drug. One big potential roadblock: Malloy opposes legalization.

Looney is also advocating two controversial measures backed by unions – raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour over several years, and creating a system for paid family and medical leave that workers would pay for through payroll deductions. The family leave proposal also has the backing of AARP, but is opposed by business groups and could prompt warnings about the state’s business climate, a sensitive topic for state leaders in the wake of General Electric’s decision to relocate its headquarters from Fairfield to Boston.

Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell watches students in a science class at East Hartford Middle School.

CTMirror.org

Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell watches students in a science class at East Hartford Middle School.

School funding was a hot topic among legislators last summer after a Superior Court judge ruled that the way the state distributes money for education does not meet constitutional requirements. Judge Thomas Moukawsher also ruled that educational performance standards are too lax. Lawmakers from both parties blasted the ruling. But whether their disapproval leads to action remains to be seen. The Connecticut Supreme Court is planning to hear an appeal in the case, and it’s not clear whether legislators will take action this year.

Another topic of concern to many legislators: state cutbacks in eligibility for the Care4Kids program, a popular subsidy that helps low-income parents pay for child care so they can work. Facing a funding shortfall and increased costs because of federal rules changes, officials tightened eligibility requirements. The state largely stopped enrolling new children in the program last summer, jeopardizing child care assistance – and parents’ ability to work – for thousands of families.

Malloy is expected to try a second time to pass bail reform to reduce the number of people incarcerated before trial because they can’t afford bail. A proposal last year – part of the governor’s “Second Chance Society” initiatives – failed to come up for a vote, but the governor said at a criminal justice conference late last year that he intends to try again.

Keeping track? We’ve got your back

As we’ve done in the past, The Mirror will provide a tracker of major bills, listing where they are in the process, and an easy-to-read guide to each budget proposal, listing the proposed cuts, spending hikes and tax or fee increases.

State senators sit in the front of the House chamber as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy gives his State of the State address.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CTMirror.org

State senators sit in the front of the House chamber as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy gives his 2016 State of the State address.

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