Christine Stuart photo
Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford (Christine Stuart photo)

Unable to get a majority of its members to support a universal preschool bill approved last month by the Senate, the House took the unusual step early Saturday morning of splitting the bill in two and sending both back to the Senate.

House members voiced concerns about a Senate proposal called “Smart Start,” which would allow cities and towns to use $10 million in bonding to renovate classrooms and make them age appropriate. It also uses $10 million in Tobacco Settlement Funds starting on July 1, 2015, to hire teachers to manage those classrooms.

The program provides operating funds in the amount of $5,000 per student up to $75,000 per classroom with a maximum of $300,000 per district. It also authorizes $75,000 per classroom in capital grants.

Outgoing Sen. President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, pitched the proposal in early April after the public hearing process. But it only received the support of 79 House Democrats, which is nine more than it needed to pass.

Some lawmakers like Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, were concerned about how the bill evolved and the lack of a public hearing process.

“When this proposal was floated up there a few weeks ago it kind of caught everybody off guard,” Cook said Saturday.

She said they spent countless hours talking to stakeholders trying to implement the Office of Early Childhood, so it took them all by surprise when Williams attached his proposal to the bill.

“The uncertainties far outweigh the possibilities at this point,” Cook said, adding that she’s not in favor of the legislation unless she can ensure all of her constituents, not just a selected base such as private daycare providers, “that they’re not going to lose their jobs or be forced into something they’re not comfortable with.”

She said said also fears the concept could become a municipal mandate that towns will have to fund if the funding disappears in five years when it comes up for renewal.

Rep. Timothy Ackert, R-Coventry, said it may be a great bill, but it didn’t go through the legislative process.

“We do not know how this is going to affect our boards of eds or our local preschools,” Ackert said. “Can we afford it? Can we sustain it?”

House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said they didn’t have a public hearing on the issue so it’s unclear if there is a good answer to those questions.

The bill establishing the Office of Early Childhood and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s initiative to add 1,000 new preschool slots for three- and four-year-olds in some of the state’s neediest districts was approved 142-0.

Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, credited House Speaker Brendan Sharkey and Majority Leader Joseph Aresimowicz for recognizing that there was support for the Office of Early Childhood and allowing members to vote for that part of the bill.

“At the end of the day it’s about passing the legislation,” Williams said.

Editor’s note: The original story mistakenly thought 76 votes was necessary for passage when it was 71 votes.

He said he’s confident the Senate will easily pass the legislation again and forward it to the governor’s desk.