Time runs out on jobs, energy and minimum-wage bills
On a closing day marked by partisan friction, the House of Representatives found a rare moment of harmony Wednesday evening, unanimously granting final passage to a bill imposing penalties in the future on Connecticut’s utilities for poor performance in restoring blackouts.
But other bills, including priorities of House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, and Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, were destined to die at midnight, the constitutional adjournment deadline of the 2012 session.
On the final night, every legislator is a king or queen, able to kill legislation by threat of a long debate. A tax relief bill sought by Hartford, energy and health legislation and smaller bills important to the governor or a single legislator all remained on the House and Senate calendars.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will address a joint session of the General Assembly after midnight, a traditional address delivered at a time when most of the state is alseep. Malloy can celebrate late action on his two must-have bills: education reforms and a budget for next year.
Donovan and Williams were not as lucky. Donovan’s minimum wage increase has been stuck for weeks in the Senate, where Democrats say they do not have the votes for passage. Williams’ jobs bill has been languishing on the House calendar as a bargaining chip.
As the clock approached 11 p.m., the Senate was planning to attach the jobs measure to a House bill. It never was taken up in the House.
As they have throughout the session, supporters of universal health care remained a visible presence in the Capitol in red “healthcare4every1” shirts Wednesday.
One of their top priorities, expanding membership of the board overseeing a key piece of federal health reform known as the insurance exchange, lingered on the Senate’s list of bills for consideration. The bill, which would add consumer and small business representatives to the board, passed the House unanimously, but it never was taken up in the Senate.
Two other priorities of the group failed to make it to a vote in either chamber: a proposal to have the state develop a publicly run insurance plan for low-income adults who don’t qualify for Medicaid under health reform, and a bill, once a key priority of the House speaker, to open the state employee health insurance pool to small businesses.
The storm bill, which implemented several recommendations from the governor’s Two Storm Panel, was approved early Wednesday evening to the governor’s applause.
“We can’t know exactly what emergency is coming next, but we can learn from past experience and improve. I look forward to signing this bill after it is transmitted to my office and thank the General Assembly for their votes,” Malloy said.
It would toughen performance standards for electric, gas and telephone utilities, require them to report annually to the state on their emergency response plans and launch a pilot “micro-grid” program to ensure vital commercial and public services in community centers remain active during wide-scale power outages.
“Sometimes they (utility companies) have fallen down on the job,” said Rep. Vicki Nardello, D-Prospect, co-chairwoman of the Energy and Technology Committee.
Nardello was the first lawmaker — along with Donovan — to call for financial penalties for utilities that fail to meet state-imposed performance benchmarks.
That recommendation came in the days following after an Oct. 29 nor’easter, as the state’s largest electric utility, Connecticut Light & Power Co., missed a self-imposed deadline to restore power to more than 800,000 customers.
Public outrage grew as CL&P needed 11 days to correct all outages. The company also had drawn criticism after it required nine days to restore power to more than 670,000 customers who lost power after Tropical Storm Irene, which hit Aug. 27-28.
“Connecticut will not be immune to future natural disasters,” said Rep. Steven Mikutel, D-Griswold, whose southeastern Connecticut community was slammed by the storms. “But we cannot let our state be crippled. … We need a better response from the utilities.”
One of the measure’s critical components, Nardello said, is a mandate that state utility regulators develop standards for electric and gas providers. And while regulators have some flexibility in this task, the Public Utility Regulatory Authority must develop power restoration deadlines, minimum maintenance staffing levels for utilities and regular tree-trimming work near power lines.
State regulators can initiate a review of an electric or gas utility’s performance at any time, though it must do so whenever at least 10 percent of a company’s customer base has been without service for at least 48 hours.
The legislation also empowers PURA to impose fines up to as much as 2.5 percent of the utility’s annual revenue from electricity or gas distribution.
CL&P commissioned its own study of the storm response, releasing a report in March from Maryland-based Davies Consulting recommending that the utility expand tree-trimming near power lines and take other steps to elevate its response. But it also disputed Malloy administration reports that the company was unprepared for the storms, concluding that power restoration efforts were “reasonable” compared with industry norms.
A final mandate in the bill directs PURA to develop a pilot program to work with interested communities to develop “micro-grids” — community centers with alternate power sources to ensure that public safety, health care and other vital services remain available during large-scale blackouts.
But while one storm-related bill squeaked by under the wire, another designed to target price gougers who exploit weather emergencies died in the House.
The measure would have empowered the Department of Consumer Protection to level an unfair trade practices charge against any business charging an “unconscionably excessive price” for vital goods or services during a weather emergency as declared by the governor.
Under the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, courts may impose penalties up to $5,000 for willful violations, and up to $25,000 for businesses that continue abusive practices.
The bill focused on goods and services deemed necessary for consumers’ health, safety or welfare, such as lodging, snow removal, flood abatement and post-storm cleanup. Connecticut already has a statute barring price gouging involving gasoline.
But critics argued that despite language allowing those charged with gouging to dispute the matter in court, an “unconscionably excessive price” is too difficult to define. The bill defined it as a “gross disparity” between the post-storm prices and average prices charged during the 30 days beforehand.
“It’s really no different than many of the other statutes we have that are intended to be flexible in nature,” said Rep. Joseph Taborsak, D-Danbury, co-chairman of the General Law Committee. “It’s a very common sense bill.”
Arielle Levin Becker contributed to this report.
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