HARTFORD, CT — The regular General Assembly session is over so it’s time to take a look back at some of the big winners and losers of a session highlighted by the inauguration of a new governor and a legislature with a strong Democratic bent.
That Democratic majority helped carry through some party priorities to major victories while others faltered.
Kitchen Table / Bread-and-Butter Issues
They include raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2023. Under the new law the current minimum wage of $10.10 an hour will increase to $11 in October, $12 on Sept. 1, 2020, $13 on Aug. 1, 2021, $14 on July 1, 2022, and then $15 on June 1, 2023.
Also a big win for the Democrats, though a slight more controversial was a Paid Family and Medical Leave program in Connecticut that Gov. Ned Lamont said he would sign.
The legislation requires all employees in Connecticut to participate. It also allows sole proprietors to opt in to the program. State employees covered by collective-bargaining agreements are not included.
Under the bill, every employee in the state of Connecticut would be asked to contribute 0.5 percent of their earnings to a state FMLA trust fund.
Some bills had bipartisan support. The legislature passed a number of gun control measures. The one that garnered the most support of both parties was “Ethan’s Law,” which will require all firearms, loaded and unloaded, to be safely stored in homes occupied by minors under 18 years of age. The bill easily passed the Senate and House and was quickly signed into law by Lamont.
Connecticut’s current safe storage law only requires that loaded firearms be properly stored “if a minor is likely to gain access to the firearm without the permission of the parent or guardian of the minor.”
Ethan Song, of Guilford, died of a self-inflicted gunshot. The 15-year-old accidentally shot himself in the head in January 2018, the Waterbury state’s attorney’s office said after concluding its investigation.
A juvenile friend of Ethan’s was charged with second-degree manslaughter.
Sexual Assault and Harassment
Also in the winner column was a bill designed to crack down on sexual harassment in the workplace and increase the time victims have to bring allegations of sexual assault.
The legislation, which has been referred to as the “Time’s Up” bill, passed last week unanimously in the Senate had bipartisan support in the House.
Another winner was for those concerned about young people smoking — and especially vaping.
Both the House and Senate, again in a bipartisan manner, voted to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21 from its current 18. The main motivating factor in the debate in both chambers seems to be the concern that Connecticut is among many states that is seeing what has been termed as a “vaping epidemic” amongst its school-age population.
The House and Senate both passed a bill designed to stem a sharp increase in juvenile car thefts.
The bill would allow juveniles charged with car theft to seek services rather than face adult prosecution. Municipal officials were pushing for some concrete action to crack down on the thefts that have reached alarming numbers in cities such as Waterbury.
Also passed in the waning hours was a bill that would provide more transparency on how prosecutors do their jobs and police accountability legislation that would change the way law enforcement and prosecutors release information after a serious use-of-force incident.
The bill requires the release of body or dashboard camera video within 96 hours of an incident upon request. It’s a massive change in the way most police departments release information.
It reshapes the way police handle use-of-force incidents and fatalities by requiring certain details to be made public on request within a set period of time, and by prohibiting police from firing into fleeing vehicles.
There were some wins and losses for environmentalists.
In the budget, language calls for a tax on plastic and paper bags until they are banned beginning July 1, 2021.
But a bill that would have expanded the types of redeemable bottles to include most teas, juices, and sports drinks and also would have increased the beverage container deposit to 10 cents, up from five cents, failed. Also not making it to the finish line was a bill banning plastic straws.
Homeowners with crumbling foundations
Homeowners whose foundations are crumbling got relief as well as the legislature passed a comprehensive bill to protect unsuspecting buyers from purchasing affected homes. The legislation also establishes a low-interest loan program for repairs, allows condominium owners to participate in the captive insurance company, and develops more cost-effective methods for repairs.
Legalization of Marijuana
Among those who lost this session were those who thought this was the year that the state would join many others in legalizing recreational marijuana.
Despite several bills being written, and some passing committees, calling for legalization, the issue never came up for a full vote in either the House or Senate as the debate bogged down over who would get the money from a marijuana tax and whether legalization was worth the legal and societal headaches opponents said it would bring.
Advocates had high hopes at the start of the legislative session that Connecticut might be the first state in the nation to pass a public option. But when those hopes were dashed, there was still hope that some type of reform might get passed.
The House passed a bill that would allow Connecticut to become the fourth state in the nation to get a federal waiver to import drugs from Canada. It also allowed the state to apply for a 1332 reinsurance waiver. There are currently nine states with these types of waivers, which allow the federal government to cover the costs of some of the most expensive claims.
Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, who had been working to get the bill across the finish line, texted with an hour left in the legislative session to say “no deal.” The bill died on the Senate calendar.
After a spirited push led by Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, to pass legislation that would make calls from prison free, House leaders ultimately decided to table HB 6714 hours before the session ended. Thanks to efforts by Elliott and a wide array of supporters, the issue of the cost of phone calls from prison was highlighted — and so was the $7.7 million that the state was getting annually from the calls.
While the legislation ultimately failed to pass this year, it drew awareness to the issue, said House Majority Leader Rep. Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, who called the amount the state was making off the calls an “unconscionable scam.” Ritter promised that in 2020 the legislature will take the issue up again. In the meantime, the bruhaha over the cost of the calls prompted the state and Securus Technologies, the company that manages the inmate phone system, to renegotiate the contract to lower the cost of the calls.
Advocates for early voting won — but actually lost.
The Senate was unable to find enough support to send an early voting resolution to the voters in November 2020, which means it’s up to the next General Assembly to decide whether Connecticut should have no-excuse absentee or early voting.
A bill that would have made it easier for people who weren’t registered before an election also didn’t make it over the finish line.
The bill was expected to expand access to Election Day Registration by permitting registrars to establish more than one location in each municipality. It also would have allowed those on parole to vote.
The final budget does not include any increase for the nonprofit community that serves 500,000 people through some 1,200 contracts with the state. Many received a cost-of-living raise in 2018, but nonprofits hoped in vain to share some of the budget surplus.
What seemed like a sure bet at the beginning of the legislative session never made it across the finish line. Lamont was unable to reach a global agreement with the two federally recognized Indian tribes to move forward with a deal that would allow them and other organizations to offer sports betting in Connecticut.
Transparency was the furthest thing from lawmakers minds this year. A labor contract with the state police only allows the public access to investigations into police if there is a finding of wrongdoing. Also a deal with the founder of one of the largest hedge funds in the world exempts his foundation from both ethics and Freedom of Information laws.
TOO EARLY TO CALL
It is too early to call some issues winners or losers — most notably tolls, as it is all but inevitable that a special session will be called to deal with the most controversial session to hit the state in many years.
Not a single Republican in either the House or Senate has expressed support for tolling the state’s four interstate highways even though Lamont and many Democrats say it is absolutely essential to fix the state’s broken transportation system and get traffic moving at a pace that would improve business in the state.
Other issues that could be taken up in an overtime session include the never-ending debate of when and where and who should build new casinos in the state of Connecticut and other economic development projects.
The state budget offered a mixed bag for residents by spreading out tax increases and fees to close a $3.7 billion deficit without increasing income taxes. They eventually settled on a plan to increase sales taxes on a variety of things, including digital downloads (Hulu, Netflix, etc.), ridesharing services, parking, alcohol, laundromats, dry cleaning services, interior design, and also on prepared foods at grocery stores and restaurants.
The budget also increased the annual $25 business filing fee to $60 while eliminating the $250 business entity tax, which had been levied every two years, equating to a $90 per year reduction for businesses before factoring in other changes like the gradual increase in the minimum wage and staffing changes that might be needed to accommodate the new paid Family and Medical Leave program.
Auto dealers will now have to pay a $100 fee for trade-in vehicles, instead of $35.
Lisa Backus contributed to this report.