It was a five-month session bookended by legislation related to the second-worst school shooting in the nation’s history – a horrific event that brought Republican and Democratic lawmakers together for what they hoped to be the greater good.
In April, the General Assembly strengthened Connecticut’s gun laws, expanded efforts to recognize and treat mental illness, and provided help to school districts that want to improve security. This week they exempted crime scene photos for families of all homicide victims, a measure that drew lobbying support from the families of the 26 murdered in Newtown.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who addressed lawmakers after the close of the session, said most officials were still reeling from that tragedy when the legislature started its work in January.
“Every one of us would give anything to go back to December 14 and prevent what happened that day. But we can’t. The best we can do is to go forward in a way that honors those we’ve lost. And in the halls of the Capitol this session, we’ve seen that commitment to push forward,” Malloy said.
Sen. President Donald Williams said the backdrop of the Newtown murders framed the session from beginning to end.
“It’s certainly been the longest session that I’ve ever experienced,” Williams said. “Beginning with Sandy Hook and ending with Sandy Hook, I think that frames the session. The type of bipartisan cooperation that we managed to build on some of the toughest issues in American politics was extraordinary.”
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said the session was really two separate sessions.
“The first three months was about guns. The last two was about everything else,” Cafero said.
He said the first three months saw lawmakers come together on a divisive and emotional issue. But the last two months, he said, were a different story.
“I think we let down the state of Connecticut,” Cafero said.
He was referring to the two-year state budget that spares municipalities and education aide and gambles on legalizing Keno and other one-time gimmicks to close a projected deficit of $1.5 billion in the first year and $1.35 billion in the second.
As lawmakers were preparing to cut spending during a special session last December, they were watching news reports of a school shooting.
Earlier in the session, legislative committees working to draft a bipartisan response to the shooting missed some of their self-imposed deadlines. The lengthy negotiations led some lawmakers to express concern over whether the legislature could finish its work on time this year.
On Wednesday as the Senate was finishing up its work, Williams said lawmakers had still passed a two-year budget and approved legislation implementing that budget. It is not uncommon for the legislature to put off voting on implementer bills until a special session later in the summer.
“We’re poised to potentially finish all of our business on time, something that almost never happens,” Williams said. “To not only pass a budget but . . . we’ve dealt with very, very tough issues and been efficient with our time.”
As it turned out, the Senate finished up with 17 minutes to spare.
Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney called the budget implementer the “worst rat-laden piece of legislation” he’s seen in 15 years. He said the bill had 391 sections and 491 pages and was “dropped in our lap” moments before the vote.
Toward the end of the legislative session, the minority party can take the upper hand by talking a bill until the midnight deadline, running out the clock. McKinney opted to let the bill go to a vote.
“I think it’s clear we have very different visions of the state budget and economic development,” he said.
But he said even Malloy, who is known for his combative politics, seems to have softened a little this year. The governor understands the legislature better than he did when he took office, McKinney said. As of the end of the session, Malloy had not vetoed a single bill in 2013.
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said he was proud of the work the legislature did on the budget this year.
“Closing the deficit that we closed — at the beginning of the year, that seemed like an impossible task,” he said.
Sharkey, who was serving his first term as House speaker, said it was an exciting five months.
“It was a real roller coaster ride emotionally and physically but it was very exciting and it’s something we’re very proud of,” he said.
Sharkey said the House and Senate could work on communicating better between the two chambers. There were times in the session when that communication seemed to break down, like when both chambers passed their own version of legislation on the labeling of genetically modified foods. They eventually passed a compromise but the legislation had to be voted upon twice in each chamber.
“I think we had that kind of miscommunication at times when important bills weren’t really fully discussed with both houses and as a result there were changes made in both houses,” he said. “I hope the result will be that we do a better job of communicating.”