Malloy, legislators begin sprint to November as 2014 session opens
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and state legislators begin writing the narrative for their campaigns today as the governor delivers his budget address on the first full day of the General Assembly’s three-month election-year session.
If not using a shared script, the first-term Democratic governor and the legislature’s Democratic majority leaders are at least working off the same talking points, already agreeing to expand a popular jobs training program, increase the minimum wage and reverse some benefits cuts.
The state’s fragile economy will be a priority, as it has to varying degrees over the past three years.
“I think it’s going to be a major theme,” said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven.
But a long and varied list of other issues will compete for attention, starting with an effort to overhaul the state’s ability to regulate the rapidly consolidating hospital industry. House and Senate leaders say hospital legislation is on the must-do list.
In its annual preview of potential “major issues,” the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Research gave legislators briefing material on everything from regulating surveillance drones to policies aimed at shoring up the troubled finances of the Hartford region’s trash-to-energy authority, the Connecticut Resource Recovery Authority.
Will legislators address homelessness? A federally mandated study found that homelessness in Connecticut grew by 7 percent last year, while it fell by 4 percent nationally. How about foreclosures? Despite new rules last year, the rate of bank foreclosures on homes in Connecticut remains high.
“I learned over the years, you never know what things are going to pop out of left field,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk.
Legislators will have to decide how to respond to recommendations from three task forces that met off-session on freedom-of-information issues, distracted driving and the sale of cats and dogs at pet stores.
Spurred by complaints against the University of Connecticut, a bipartisan group of female legislators, who comprise about one-third of the General Assembly’s members, are intent on making sexual assaults against college students a major issue.
Organized labor is asking the legislature to create a voluntary retirement program open to the public, a recognition that half the state’s workers are not covered by an employer-sponsored retirement plan. One recent study found that the percentage of employers offering retirement plans declined from 66 percent to 59 percent from 2000 to 2012.
Outside groups are fighting to get their issues on the agenda, always a tougher task in odd-numbered years, when the session lasts only three months.
Proponents of a measure that would allow physicians to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients hope to move their proposal forward this year, despite opposition from some religious groups and people with disabilities.
Election-year politics will color nearly everything as the two parties press during the session for advantages in November.
The Democratic majority’s agenda include several issues ready-made for campaign-mailers, including a minimum wage increase, employment programs and consumer protections for the elderly. The minimum wage has the added benefit of being a likely wedge issue, one that Democrats will support and Republicans will oppose.
Republicans intend to push campaign finance reforms crafted to focus public attention on Malloy’s soliciting campaign contributions for the Democratic Party from donors who do business with the state. The same donors are barred from giving directly to Malloy.
“Yes, the governor is right in saying it is legal under the law, but I think it is the quintessential, classic loophole,” Cafero said.
Senate Democratic leaders signal their top goal for the session most years with the bill designated as S.B. 1.
This year, it is “An Act Concerning Economic Growth and Opportunities for the Unemployed.” It would expand a program created in the bipartisan special jobs session of 2011 that offers employers subsidies for hiring and training the unemployed.
It may win bipartisan support again.
“I think everybody wants to be able to point to the legislature being responsive to concerns about stimulating the economy,” Looney said. “It’s a good issue for everybody to be able to highlight.”
Malloy already has promised to include funding for the program in his budget proposal.
The governor also has borrowed heavily from a report issued in December by the legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee on the re-employment of older workers.
The governor and Democratic legislative leaders endorsed a proposal to ban employment ads that discriminate against the jobless. Such ads often are especially troublesome for older workers.
Last week, Democratic leaders outlined a low-cost, high-profile legislative agenda of consumer protections and other items backed by AARP, the over-50 advocacy group.
How to regulate and finance the hospital industry poses a complex set of issues.
The hospital industry faced significant funding cuts in the budget adopted last year — the Malloy administration says they’ll be offset by more patients having insurance because of the federal health law, although hospital officials say it’s not that simple — and hospital funding is expected to be part of the debate over the state budget.
In addition, Democrats are expected to try to expand the regulatory process for hospital ownership changes, a response to concerns about consolidation in the industry. Talks on the topic are likely to include a state law that makes it difficult for for-profit companies to purchase Connecticut hospitals, a point of leverage for those with concerns about the potential purchase of several Connecticut hospitals by the for-profit chain Tenet Healthcare.
Attorney General George Jepsen has indicated that he plans to propose legislation on facility fees, the charges patients can face if they get care at a medical office owned by a hospital, even if it’s located off hospital grounds.
Consumer advocates have long been concerned about the fees, which can cost thousands of dollars, and they say health care facilities don’t give patients enough notice about the charges they could face. Hospitals say the added costs reflect heightened standards and costs associated with being part of a hospital.
The day belongs to Malloy, but the first-term Democratic governor is facing competing fiscal priorities as legislators file their own bills that would cut taxes and earmark portions of the projected $506 million deficit.
Malloy already has promised to end a freeze imposed on rental subsidies for the elderly, but 16 Democratic legislator have sponsored H.B. 5001, which would force the governor’s hand.
“Taxes are raised in the odd-numbered years, and the rebates and largesse are given out in the even-numbered years,” Cafero said. “Guess which one is the election year?”
Arielle Levin Becker contributed to this report.
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