Key measures needed to implement the next state budget and an overdue fix to a debt-riddled anti-pollution program were earmarked for a special session Wednesday even as lawmakers scrambled to pass more bills before the midnight adjournment deadline.
Republicans said they feared legislative overtime would open a Pandora’s box of pet bills, but majority Democrats remained optimistic that the General Assembly’s business would be limited.
“I’m always concerned when we go into special session, especially with respect to [budget] implementers and the can of worms that opens up,” said Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield. “It’s not easy to manage the calendar, but Democratic leadership could have shown more discipline.”
“We had a short session, but I would still argue that we have not accomplished a lot,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk. “It’s a shame.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his fellow Democrats in the legislature majority did adopt both a plan to close a projected $285 million hole in current state finances, and a new $20.5 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The latter includes several new education initiatives sought by the governor, and assumes savings from a new asset test of medical benefits to the poor to help pay for them. But these and other policy changes behind the budget numbers still have to enacted by the legislature, and leaders in both chambers conceded Wednesday this wouldn’t be completed by midnight.
But Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said that after adopting a new budget appropriations bill, a detail education reform initiative, repeal of capital punishment, Election Day registration, Sunday liquor sales and tough new penalties and standards for utilities, the legislature has an impressive list of accomplishments.
“We’ve tackled more big issues in this session than any other short session that I can recall,” he said.
The legislature technically also will miss one deadline when it hits another at midnight.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned Connecticut in January that it had until May 9 to fix its Underground Storage Tank Petroleum Clean-up Fund or face federal decertification of the program.
Hanging in the balance are hundreds of gas stations that industry officials say would go out of business in that event.
The debt-riddled program that has been plagued by backlogs stretching back nearly a decade. It entered the calendar year owing more than $16.8 million in aid — and funds to cover less than 2 percent of that. That money is owed to Connecticut businesses, particularly gasoline station owners facing leaking underground fuel tanks.
The program also had nearly $82 million worth of backlogged applications that hadn’t been processed yet.
Since Congress toughened regulation of leaking underground tanks in 1984, federal regulators have accepted state cleanup programs as a crucial alternative for gasoline stations unable to get private insurance to cover their pollution liabilities.
Malloy had proposed borrowing $5 million for the fund next fiscal year. This was intended to cover the claims of municipalities and owners of individual gas stations and small chains. Large chains, which represent roughly three-quarters of the pending claims, would have to accept pennies on the dollar, or take their chances in court.
Some lawmakers feared $5 million would be insufficient to cover most towns and small businesses, and negotiated a tentative deal with Malloy to bump the annual deposit up to $9 million — and to continue it for at least another three fiscal years after 2012-13.
Adjustments to the state’s capital bonding program, which would authorize the necessary borrowing, were given final approval in the House minutes before the midnight deadline.
But the specifics on how the $9 million will be divided, as well as other policy changes needed to revise the underground tank program, will be included in the budget implementation bills, and therefore won’t be considered until the special session.
Still, Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the Environment Committee, said he’s confident state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel Esty has kept federal officials apprised of the impending state action.
“Commissioner Esty has a strong relationship with the EPA and I trust that we’re OK there,” Meyer said, adding that the time taken to negotiate a larger financial commitment was worthwhile.
“The gas station owners seem to have calmed down now,” he said. “I think we’ve got a good plan.”
Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, co-chairwoman of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, agreed that the added funding was crucial, but added that Connecticut lawmakers need to resolve this soon for reasons other than the federal deadline.
“In many cases we’re talking about small businesses that have paid to clean up their properties,” she said. “They are waiting for their money and for some, that wait is a real hardship.”