The 2014 legislative session concluded at midnight Wednesday, marking the end of more than 18 lawmakers’ careers — perhaps the most simultaneous legislative retirements since the passage of the income tax.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Democratic lawmakers praised the early-session passage of legislation raising the state minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017. But the final day’s usual rapid-fire passage of bills was slowed this year by farewell tributes and an unusual level of procrastination on the huge bill implementing the state budget.
The Senate took more than five hours during the final day to bid farewell to Senate President Donald Williams and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney. In the House, lawmakers recognized several outgoing members, including Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero.
“I believe this is a very historic moment in our chamber where two very, very powerful, knowledgeable leaders are leaving us,” Sen. Terry Gerratana, D-New Britain, said of Williams’ and McKinney’s departure.
Some legislation did see passage in the last hours of the session. Bills banning the sale of electronic cigarettes to children, tightening regulation of pet stores, nursing home transparency, and adoptees gaining access to birth certificates all passed in the final 24 hours.
But short sessions are technically devoted to mid-year budget corrections. This year’s session began with Malloy and lawmakers debating how to spend a $500 million surplus, but it closed with them struggling to balance a budget in the face of plummeting income tax revenues.
Malloy was forced to abandon a high-profile, election-year proposal to send Connecticut taxpayers a $55 tax rebate.
The budget proposal adopted Saturday assumes that the Department of Revenue Services will, in 2015, collect an additional $75 million in unpaid taxes from tax delinquents identified last year during the tax amnesty process.
In the waning hours lawmakers debated a bill implementing the dollars in that budget proposal called a “budget implementer.” The 300-page bill includes 260 sections spelling out how the budget should be spent. Some sections come from concepts that were previously raised as bills, others appeared with no public discussion.
There were others, like the reduction of pensions for judges who serve less than 10 years, that Republicans were able to support. Republican lawmakers raised concerns that at least two of Malloy’s judicial nominees were just a few years away from the mandatory retirement age and would be able to access a $100,000 annual pension after serving just three years.
“That’s a good thing,” Cafero said of judges pensions. “But there are so many other bad things.”
The budget increases spending 2.5 percent and it assumes that if spending patterns in the 2015 budget are maintained, the state will face a $1.3 billion deficit in 2016.
The House approved the implementer bill at 11:15 p.m. on a 91-56 vote, sending it on to the Senate with just 45 minutes left before their deadline. The Senate passed the bill on a 23-13 vote at 11:47 p.m.
Despite the revenue woes, policymakers followed through with a much-discussed repeal of keno, the politically unpopular, bingo-style game legalized last year to raise revenue but never implemented.
Even so, this year’s budget contains some of the accounting gimmicks for which Malloy derided his predecessor, Gov. M. Jodi Rell. But the governor has already begun highlighting the approval of the politically popular minimum wage hike.
That bill was passed early in the session after the legislature suspended its rules to move it through both chambers during a single day in March. Although the bill drew opposition from Republicans, it was an example of cooperation between leaders in the House and Senate.
Cooperation on the minimum wage legislation stood in contrast to tensions between the two chambers that marked much of this year’s session. The conflict was most visible in April, when House Speaker Brendan Sharkey took the unusual step of suspending his chamber’s rules in order to quickly raise and publicly kill a top legislative priority of retiring Senate President Donald Williams.
The demise of the bill, which would have banned genetically modified grass seed before it ever comes on the market in Connecticut, appears to have affected relations between the two leaders. Outgoing Sen. Ed Meyer reflected on the incident Wednesday as he and others in the Senate were saying goodbye to Williams.
“[Sharkey] kind of dissed us and particularly dissed our Senate leader,” Meyer said.
The perceived disrespect had senators privately debating whether to raise and kill Sharkey’s priority bill to get colleges and hospitals to pay property taxes to towns. Meyer said Williams wouldn’t have it.
“Our leader had the good judgment and integrity to say to us, ‘That’s not the direction we’re going to go.’ That’s leadership,” Meyer said.
In the final seconds of the legislative session, Cafero thanked Sharkey for being fair and offered what sounded like a public rebuttal of the Senate. Cafero said Sharkey respected the legislative process — a clear nod at the Senate’s grass seed bill, which did not go through the normal committee process.
“You have given us fair processes and have never allowed us, and never shoved down our throats, bills that have not gone through the legislative process. There is no higher compliment in my opinion from a Republican to a Democrat to a man who respects the process,” Cafero said.
However, the House vote on the grass seed bill derailed negotiations scheduled for that night on new oversight policies for the privatization of nonprofit hospitals. Although lawmakers had signaled early that the hospital issue was a top concern for the session, drafts of an amendment that would have allowed hospitals acquire physician practices were flying back and forth in the final hours.
Beyond the departure of the three caucus leaders, turnover in the legislature this year will be unusually high. The House created a farewell video to send off the dozen legislators there who aren’t seeking re-election. The Senate spent more than two hours apiece talking about its six retiring members.
Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, one of the longest serving members in the House, said the number of retirements demonstrates the emotional toll taken on lawmakers since Dec. 14, 2012, when a gunman killed 20 first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
The severity of the incident drew global attention and prompted the state legislature to hold a series of widely attended and divisive public hearings. Those lengthy hearings proceeded the passage of a far-reaching, controversial bill containing stricter gun control laws, changes in school security and mental health screening.
“I haven’t seen this kind of emotional stress since the income tax debate,” Godfrey said Wednesday. “The shooting impacted us as human beings.”
For a part-time legislature, where lawmakers have other jobs, it proved too much for many veterans and even some younger lawmakers. Godfrey, who has been in the House for 26 years, said it’s getting more difficult to recruit legislators because they haven’t had an increase in pay since 2001.