Christine Stuart photo

Lawmakers returned to the state Capitol Friday to finish the remaining budget implementation bills.

During the roughly four-hour session, the House and the Senate passed a handful of bills detailing everything from school construction spending to how government agencies will be funded.

While optimistic things went smoothly Friday, the legislature’s Democratic majority couldn’t say with any certainty what Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell may do with one of the four bills. But they were fairly confident she would sign at least three.

Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Southport, said the Democrats put everything they thought Rell may veto into one bill. He said it’s his understanding that Rell is “contemplating vetoing one of the two general government implementers.”

Based on the letter Rell’s Budget Secretary Robert Genuario sent to legislative leaders earlier this week it looks like Rell may take issue with the legislature’s attempt in this bill to prevent her from privatizing 17 group homes and closing two hospitals and drug treatment facilities.

The bill puts a two year moratorium on the sale or lease of state-operated, community-based residential facilities, boarding houses, group homes, and halfway houses occupied by people with mental retardation, psychiatric disabilities, or alcohol or drug dependency.

Majority Leader Denise Merrill, D-Mansfield, said it’s possible the governor will look at it as the legislature trying to take away the power of the executive branch, but ultimately she said it’s about the patients.

In addition to the moratorium, the bill – which some have called “veto bait” – earmarks about $1.3 million over two years for a needs assessment and service contract for children of incarcerated parents, a $50,000 earmark for the Connecticut Pardon Team Inc., and a $75,000 earmark for the Connecticut Sentencing Commission.

When asked if the General Assembly will return if Rell vetoes the bill, Sen. President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said “no,” and Speaker of the House Chris Donovan, D-Meriden, said “yes.”

The bill was passed 19 to 14 in the Senate and 96 to 35 in the House.

Asked about the Senate’s chance of returning to override a veto, Williams said “zero.” But Donovan said he was aware of what the vote was in the Senate and was still optimistic it could happen.

However, it would be much easier if Rell just signed the bill. “If she signs it then we’re done,” Donovan said.

Williams said he was more likely to wait until the February start of the new legislative session to address the details of that specific bill. 

The education bill included $677 million for school construction, increased funding for Greater Hartford area towns sending kids to Hartford magnet schools, and delayed the implementation of in-school suspension for one-year.

There was plenty of debate on the delay of in-school suspension since many legislators felt passionately one way or the other about the issue.

But what was weighing most on legislators’ minds Friday was state Comptroller Nancy Wyman’s letter Thursday which said if trends continue the state could be facing a $500 million budget deficit.

“We can’t take our eye off the ball in terms of this economic recession,” Williams said. “We’re going to have to watch the revenues and be ready to respond.”

And a lot of the heavy lifting in that regard will have to be done by Rell, who was asked by the legislature to find $473 million in what are called lapses or unspecified savings in the $37.6 billion budget.

Williams said the governor herself included $400 million in lapses in the budget she proposed in February. “We based our numbers on what the governor thought she could achieve,” Williams said.

“I think we’re going to be back here pretty soon,” House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said. “I’m afraid what we produced will not work for long.”

In closing his floor speech Cafero said, “I love you all, but I won’t miss you.”

Merrill said it was appropriate that the House finished the day by passing the education bill. In her 16 years in the House and during one of the “most difficult budget sessions” of her career, she considered it a victory to be able to maintain education funding.