There were a lot of people sulking and strategizing over Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget and legislative package Thursday, but Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney of New Haven was not one of them.
Looney, a veteran lawmaker and early supporter of Malloy’s, had a lot to be smiling about. In a difficult budget year when the legislature will be asked to make some very painful cuts, Malloy proposed a very progressive package of legislation, some of which has been at the top of Looney’s agenda years.
Aside from an Earned Income Tax Credit, which Malloy proposed funding to Looney’s delight at 30 percent of the federal credit, he also proposed legislation decriminalizing marijuana, medical marijuana, and supporting in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.
All four of those public policy changes Looney’s been supporting for years, but was unable to get signed by the former Republican governor.
Could Malloy’s public policy proposals have anything to do with the 18,000 vote plurality Malloy received from New Haven in the election?
Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s senior communications adviser, said “the governor has a strong sense that certain progressive reforms should have been here awhile ago.”
He said Malloy may be a fiscally conservative governor, but he’s also socially progressive, a message that seems to come through loud and clear in his legislative proposals.
“It’s a very difficult budget year, and there are some painful cuts, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up a substantial commitment to progressive policy,” Looney said.
More than four years ago, former Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed a bill that included language to allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates. With the help of a Democratic governor, Looney believes the bill has a chance.
Although not all his colleagues will be on board.
Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, said he doesn’t think it’s a lot to ask for someone to go through the citizenship process. And why shouldn’t the kids of “hardworking middle-class families get a break, too?”
Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-New Haven, said she supports the measure because often times it’s through no fault of their own that the children are undocumented. She said they shouldn’t suffer because of their parents irresponsibility.
Currently, undocumented immigrants who apply for student visas or lawful permanent resident status are subject to deportation and could be sent back to a country they never lived in.
It’s unclear how much the measure will cost, but in past years the Office of Fiscal Analysis concluded it could be a potential revenue loss to the University of Connecticut and a potential revenue gain to the other constituent units of higher education.
Back in 2007 the Senate voted 21-15 and the House of Representatives voted 77-68 in favor of the bill. Former Rep. Felipe Reinoso, a Peruvian immigrant from Bridgeport, was the first to introduce the legislation, and Looney picked up the issue after Reinoso retired from the legislature.
Back in November, shortly after the election Malloy’s spokeswoman Colleen Flanagan said Malloy “would sign a bill that grants in-state tuition to any graduate from a Connecticut high school living in the state.”
It wasn’t until Massachusetts passed a similar bill in 2009 that Looney introduced his own a bill calling for the decriminalization of marijuana.
He said it could save the state money because it will free up police, judicial, and corrections to focus on violent and more dangerous criminals. The legislation also lowers less than one ounce to a misdemeanor and spares individuals caught with that amount a felony record.
According to a 2009 report by the Office of Fiscal Analysis there were 9,928 marijuana arrests in Connecticut in 2007. Based on prior research findings, it is estimated that approximately 33 percent of those arrests – or 3,300 – were for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.
“Based on a proportionate analysis of resources currently allocated to handle these offenses, it is estimated that the proposal could save up to $11 million and generate $320,000 in General Fund revenue – from fines – annually,” the report said.
But it’s unclear how much political capital Malloy will be willing to expend on the legislation, which will be hotly contested by Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton.
Boucher has been successful in previous years at filibustering similar bills, like the 2009 bill that decriminalized a half-ounce of marijuana.
Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said he thinks a medical marijuana bill has a better chance of passing than a bill decriminalizing it.
“It sends a terrible message to young kids that if they use it there won’t be any consequences,” he said. He understands the root problem is that individuals caught with small amount of marijuana are overpopulating the jails, but decriminalizing it doesn’t solve the problem.
He said if the state is able to eliminate the educational achievement gap and create jobs, those two things will go a long way toward solving some of the conditions that lead people to engage in these behaviors.
But while he didn’t explicitly mention it in his speech Wednesday, Malloy hinted that he thinks decriminalization’s time has come.
“There are simply too many people who’ve been arrested and jailed for minor, non-violent or drug offenses who, if given access to an alternative forms of punishment would take advantage of that additional chance to choose a different and better path,” Malloy said. “This new policy will save us millions of dollars which is a benefit of a more enlightened policy whose time I think has come.”