General Assembly session ends in burst of bills

From left, Reps. Charles Clemons Jr., D-124 District, Ernest Hewett D-39th District, and Ezequiel Santiago, D-130th District, examine the language of a bill during the last few hours of the legislative session Wednesday in the state House of Representatives.
From left, Reps. Charles Clemons Jr., D-124 District, Ernest Hewett D-39th District, and Ezequiel Santiago, D-130th District, examine the language of a bill during the last few hours of the legislative session Wednesday in the state House of Representatives. Tim Martin/The Day

Hartford — In the early hours of the last day of the legislative session Wednesday, lawmakers came together to pass another momentous bill in response to the Newtown tragedy.

The bill, which would restrict the public release of homicide victims' photographs, passed at 2:01 a.m. Wednesday. After getting a little sleep, legislators returned to the Capitol to pass as many bills as possible before their midnight deadline.

"This has been an extraordinary session on many levels," House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said. "We have had challenges that I don't think any recent legislature has had to face with regard to the tragedies and challenges that we have had this year."

By 8:35 p.m. on the last day of the session, the General Assembly had passed numerous bills, including two stemming from issues raised after the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Also passed were bills authorizing $3.1 billion in general obligation bonds for the next two years, and legalizing mixed martial arts. The Senate also passed a bill to create a statewide port authority and had sent the bill to the House.

Senate Bill 1149, which passed 33-2 in the Senate and 130-2 in the House early Wednesday and was signed into law by the governor, changes the state's Freedom of Information laws. It exempts photographs, film, video, digital or other images depicting a homicide victim from being part of the public record, "to the extent that such record could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the victim or the victim's surviving family members," according to the bill.

Some proponents of the bill had wanted it to apply only to victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, but others, including members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, wanted all homicide victims to be treated the same.

Senate Majority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, who represents Newtown, said, "I fall into that category. I am a parent of three children, and I don't think any parent should have to worry about their son or daughter's photos who have been murdered released publicly and splashed all over the Internet."

Law enforcement agencies also will not be required to disclose any portion of an audiotape or recording where someone speaking on the recording is describing the condition of a homicide victim. However, emergency 911 recordings could be released.

Another post-Sandy Hook bill that passed Wednesday was House Bill 6374, which creates the Connecticut Coordinated Assistance and Recovery Endowment as a tax-exempt foundation for anyone to donate to support "emergency recovery" in cases such as natural disasters, acts of domestic terrorism and catastrophic events.

"We found in the tragedy of Sandy Hook there was a bit of difficulty in receiving the money and allocating it," state Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, said.

The Senate on Tuesday by a 21-14 vote and the House Wednesday by a 99-43 passed vote the state's capital bond package. Senate Bill 842 authorizes up to $3.1 billion in state general obligation bonds over two years, an additional $1.3 billion in special tax obligation bonds over the next two years for transportation and another $712 million in revenue bonds or loans over two years for Clean Water Fund loans.

The loans are for municipalities to construct wastewater collection and treatment projects. Of the general obligation bonds, $750 million is to close the state's budget deficit, which is $1.2 billion under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. The $750 million in bonds would take 13 years to pay off, and payment would not start until 2016, according to the bill. This would cost taxpayers an additional $218 million in interest, said state Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown.

State Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said the plan would mean borrowing for money that "we owe ourselves."

"What we are trying to do here is borrowing, and we are turning it into a hard debt," Candelora said. He added he was also concerned about whether the borrowed $750 million would be used to pay costs associated with converting the state to GAAP or as cash flow for the state.

At least one locally related bill to create a statewide port authority passed, 35-0, in the Senate by 8:35 p.m. Wednesday. The bill next moved to the House.

Establishing a port authority has been the goal of the legislature's Transportation Committee for several years now, said state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, a proponent of the bill.

It is the opinion of many that the state's three ports, in New London, New Haven and Bridgeport, are "wildly underutilized," he said. Senate Bill 1043 aims to maximize use of each of the three ports, he said.

The Connecticut Port Authority would have power and authority to coordinate port development with a focus on private and public investments.

State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said she had concerns about the bill because the state is already creating other new state agencies that will increase costs, such as a new state housing authority.

j.somers@theday.com

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