Lawmakers have full plate as legislature convenes

Hartford - When the 2013 General Assembly convenes Wednesday, gun violence, spending and growth likely will be weighing on lawmakers' minds.

"I think it will be a very emotional session, but we will tackle issues that are on the top of the list for so many people," state Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, said.

Legislators are expected to propose comprehensive bills to address gun control, mental health and school safety in the wake of the Newtown tragedy while offering up solutions to the state's projected $1.1 billion budget deficit for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The governor is scheduled to issue his budget proposal in February and has announced the formation of a Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, which is charged with delivering its recommendations to the General Assembly in March.

Guns

State Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, and state Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, have proposed limiting access to high-capacity weapons, assault weapons and ammunition.

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said he would propose a bill that prohibits those who cannot legally own firearms from possessing ammunition. Other legislators are proposing bills that would ban large-capacity magazines for semi-automatic weapons, he said.

Bye and Godfrey also have proposed a 50 percent sales tax on ammunition. Looney said there also might be a proposal for taxing "expensive" guns, similar to a personal property tax on vehicles. The legislature could set up an additional fund for mental health support based on this tax revenue, he said.

Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Bethel, said she didn't support adding a bullet tax because if someone wanted to do harm, a tax would not stop them. However, she said, she expects support on both sides of the aisle for continuing an assault weapons ban and for prohibiting high-capacity magazines. Other issues may be whether to grandfather gun ownership when any new law takes effect, and how to deal with guns coming in from out of state, she said.

"We propose that there is some sort of possible buy-back and it could even incorporate the private sector," Boucher said. "There might even be a way to replace (newly illegal firearms) with something that is legal."

Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, said he wants to look into how to hold corporations responsible when crimes such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings occur.

"I am looking myself to see where we can increase the accountability of corporations, whether it is their board members or officers directly," Maynard said. "If we are calling corporations persons for the sake of their unlimited political contributions, I think we should look at how much protection they are being afforded."

Does the responsibility to for-profit corporations and shareholders trump all other responsibilities, he asked.

Laws focusing on ammunition are not enough, he said. The marketing of weapons, which often exploits people's fears, needs to be evaluated, he said.

"We have retreated in our role and just simply shrugged our shoulders, 'Well, it is a free market and they should be able to do whatever they want,'" Maynard said. "I am going to ask if we can ask more of them, incentivize them to have more socially conscious behavior or, at the extreme, hold accountable those at the highest levels."

Mental health

Proposals that address access to mental health programs for low-income children and adults also are on the agenda for the upcoming session. A previous proposal from the Judiciary Committee that would have allowed community-based treatment programs to mandate that patients take their medication might be brought forward again, Looney said.

Gaps in health insurance coverage also may be examined. Many private insurance policies don't cover counseling or mental health services ordered by a court, he said.

"Where private insurance is in place, it should be covering those kinds of services," he said.

Looney said that this year he plans to build on a law passed last year that requires health insurance companies to provide documentation to an individual as to why the company is refusing coverage, to allow the patient and provider to have more information when appealing the decision. Looney wants to further require that insurance companies provide the service or prescription in question while the appeal is pending.

The legislature also will look at the size of private insurance deductibles that can make it difficult to obtain affordable care, he said.

Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, said General Assembly leaders will establish a task force to look at the intersection of mental health and education services for children and how to continue services as they "age out."

Ritter wants to address the fact that not all schools in Connecticut have the same access to mental health services for children.

"We have to look at that and ... ensure that the services are there," she said.

School safety

The legislature's education committee will continue to address school security in the wake of the Newtown shootings, Stillman said.

The 2007 school-safety law provided some funding for security such as special locked doors, intercoms and cameras, she said.

"There is already legislation in place that allows schools to do it," Stillman said. "We have to see which schools have not complied." Newtown had updated its security as far as she knew, but "sadly, it didn't work," Stillman said.

She said she was anxious to hear recommendations from the public safety department and Public Safety & Security Committee to see what else could be done.

Malloy's new task force also is expected to make recommendations regarding school safety.

State budget

Legislators have said everything is on the table when it comes to the $1.1 billion budget deficit looming over the next fiscal year.

Benjamin Barnes, secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, said some recent cuts might continue and that the governor is not interested in significant tax changes.

The spending gap for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is "enormous, about 5 percent of our budget," Barnes said.

The governor and legislature recently reduced this year's budget deficit of $365 million to $40 million, according to Comptroller Kevin Lembo. Even if they could agree to make cuts like those again - $126 million to social services and $103 million to hospitals - there would still be hundreds of millions of dollars left to cut, Barnes said.

Municipal aid

Municipal aid was at the tip of a few legislators' tongues the week before the session, and Barnes confirmed that cities and towns could lose funding.

"We spend $3 billion in municipal aid, including education aid, so this is of keen concern for us," Barnes said. "I know local governments are concerned about the impact that would have on property taxes, and I don't think anyone in the administration is taking that off the table. I hope we can do as little cutting as possible."

The administration had considered cuts to municipal aid in the current fiscal year, but held off.

"But for next year's budget, prospectively it's a different question," Barnes said.

Boucher said it was unfortunate that municipal aid was on the table.

"If it (state spending) wasn't so structurally imbalanced, they wouldn't have to be talking about this kind of thing," she said.

She said it was the governor's job to go back to the unions and have state employees help reduce structural costs going forward.

"Ask them to take another look at the health plan they have, take another look at the way the pension is structured ... start making some concessions," she said.

A way to reduce costs to cities and towns would be to increase municipal revenue sharing in areas such as health care and transportation, state Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Groton, said.

"Any number of opportunities for multi-town, regional, cost-sharing, ways to help towns deliver central, local government services more effectively and efficiently, could reduce costs overall," she said.

Although OPM reported it is has cut about 1,500 jobs since Malloy came into office, many legislators have state agencies on their budget-cutting list.

"If we don't have funding to run agencies as they have always been run, I would like to take a look at re-purposing those agencies," said Maynard, the Stonington senator. Many state agencies are stuck on autopilot, he said, and it will take citizen outrage or legislation to fix them.

For example, he said, if the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection doesn't have enough personnel to enforce marginal environmental issues such as dock and seawall measurements, it should refocus to address larger issues, such as polluted runoff, he said.

"They are picking the gnats out of people's eyes and leaving this gigantic log there," Maynard said.

Tax breaks

Rep. Edward Moukawsher, D-Groton, said he would support the elimination of tax breaks and tax credits and would lower tax rates across the board.

Tax breaks are often lauded as ways to create jobs, he said, but he doesn't think it's fair to single out some businesses for breaks and not others. He said the state needs to look at what kind of return it's getting, adding that he would not support additional funding for Malloy's First Five program, which is intended to bring large companies to the state to spur large-scale business development.

Moukawsher said tax breaks combined with the credits, deductions and exemptions have cost the state billions.

"How are we going to make that money up?" he asked.

Barnes said that in the recent budget deficit mitigation bill, the state made adjustments to certain tax credits for the film industry.

"I think there is already an interest in making sure incentives are getting what we want, in reaching our goals," Barnes said. "I don't see those as off the table."

Transportation

Southeastern Connecticut legislators also have their eyes on transportation and growth. They want to develop New London's port, expand Shore Line East and help develop a bioscience and pharmaceutical hub.

"We would like to see ourselves as a potential center for this kind of excellence," Ritter said. "We would like more resources in promoting and helping those businesses."

Stillman, Maynard and state Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, who serve on the Transportation Committee, hope to focus on Shore Line East, the commuter rail line between New London and New Haven.

"Transportation is an obvious, hot-button issue as we look at improving Shore Line East access and availability for folks, and other public transportation projects," Stillman said.

Jutila said he wants to see an increase in funding so more trains come to New London.

Many local legislators also expressed interest in developing a Connecticut Port Authority, which would consolidate the New London, New Haven and Bridgeport ports.

"They have almost non-functioning port authorities, no coordinated plan with each other," Maynard said. "We would like to look at how we can bring whatever particular strength each has to bear and bring whatever resources we can, to help them flourish."

j.somers@theday.com

Local issues on the radar

Some issues local legislators say they'll raise in the upcoming session:

  • Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Groton, said she will be looking at ways to reform the property tax system and increase tax justice.

    A balance between state and local funding sources for municipal and educational services needs to be found, she said. The “homestead exemption” could be a way to reduce property taxes, she said. For example, someone with a $400,000 home given a $100,000 homestead exemption would have to pay property taxes only on the difference.


  • Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, said he would propose that companies be allowed to buy ads on state lottery tickets.

    “They pay the state for advertisements, putting it on lottery tickets, knowing how many households those go into, I think it is a win-win for the State of Connecticut,” Hewett said.

    He also said he will propose that the assault of a homeless person be classified as a hate crime. The population of homeless veterans is growing, so when someone assaults a homeless person they are possibly harming a veteran, he said.


  • Rep. Edward Moukawsher, D-Groton, said he would submit a bill to address the statutes for “racial balance” in schools.

    Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School in Groton serves a minority population that is larger than allowed by the statute, he said.

    The state has approved a plan in which 16 percent of Groton's elementary students will be moved to new schools.

    “So, essentially, minority students would be moved out,” he said. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that making schools diverse based on race was unconstitutional.

    “It is causing major disruptions for students in Groton,” Moukawsher said. “We are not going to be reimbursed for it. It is pretty disruptive and costly and based on statutes that are no longer constitutionally valid.”

    Schools in Manchester, Greenwich and West Hartford have similar problems, he said.


  • Sen.-elect Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said she would propose a bill that would require young students to be educated about sexual abuse. “Erin's Law,” named after Erin Merryn, who was sexually abused by her cousin, is pending in about 10 states, Osten said.

    “It's about teaching young students about sexual abuse so that they know when it's happening,” she said.


  • State Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, said he will look into funding for medical records transfers for patients who can't afford to pay. Under state health insurance programs some patients have to pay when they transfer their file from one doctor to another, he said.


Johanna Somers

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