Legislature passes two big bills in special session

Connecticut House Speaker and Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress Chris Donovan, right, stands away from the speaker's podium as he speaks with reporters during a special session at the Capitol in Hartford Tuesday. Donovan, whose congressional campaign is under federal scrutiny, appeared at the podium Tuesday and presided over the opening prayer and Pledge of Allegiance, then stepped aside and allowed a deputy House speaker to take over the deliberations. Robert Braddock Jr., Donovan's finance director, was recently arrested by federal authorities and accused of conspiring to hide the source of $20,000 in campaign contributions.

Hartford — The General Assembly’s special session concluded shortly after midnight this morning as lawmakers voted along party lines to pass two deeply packed legislative bills.

Earlier Tuesday, the Democrat-controlled House and Senate voted to expand their authority for the one-day session beyond the initial, narrow scope of implementing technical aspects to the state’s newly adjusted $20.5 billion budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year.

House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said the legislature would be derelict in its duty if it didn’t take up the many worthy pieces of legislation tucked into the two bills, which ran 468 pages and 190 pages in length.

“Fundamentally, what we’re trying to do here is the people’s business,” Sharkey said, filling in as top House leader for embattled House Speaker Christopher Donovan.

Lawmakers stood and recited the Pledge of Allegiance twice in two hours to initiate the “special session within a special session.” After nearly 12 hours of talk and debate and failed Republican amendments, both bills finally cleared both chambers.

The Senate-originated bill passed on a 22-14 vote and later 84-46 in the House. The House-originated bill passed on votes of 88-53 and 22-14. All southeastern Connecticut legislators voted with their party.

“The substance of the bill is good,” Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said. “We are accomplishing additional things that the people of Connecticut want us to accomplish.”

But Republicans were uniform in their criticism of expanding the session’s original call.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, described the bills as a “Christmas tree” of goodies and pet projects that didn’t get passed during the three-month regular session that ended at midnight on May 9.

“Are we becoming a full-time legislature?” said a visibly irritated McKinney. “Does the fact that the constitution sets out dates for us to meet and us to adjourn mean anything to you?”

House Minority Leader Larry Cafero, R-Norwalk, noted there were 344 separate bills passed during the legislature’s regular session. Tuesday’s special session, by contrast, would pass the equivalent of 122 additional bills in just two votes, and without a public hearing.

“It’s not fair to the people we represent,” he said.

But Sharkey countered that there was nothing wrong with completing some unfinished legislative business. The two bills, he said, contain “very important bipartisan issues that are critical to our towns, our cities, our constituents, that have no party affiliation.”

“There is nothing unconstitutional, either in the spirit or the language of the constitution, that we are doing today,” Sharkey said.

Donovan gaveled the House session to order at about 12:15 p.m. and shortly afterward stepped down from the speaker’s platform to walk to his office outside the chamber. Surrounded by reporters, he downplayed his recusal of leadership duties and the circumstances that led to it.

He said he would still cast votes on the bills. “It’s like any other day,” Donovan said.

Donovan had said he would step aside for the session after the May 31 arrest following an FBI sting of the finance director for his 5th Congressional District campaign. Robert Braddock Jr. is accused of conspiring with others to hide the source of $20,000 in contributions to Donovan’s campaign.

Donovan has denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of the alleged conspiracy.

Waterford Rep. Betsy Ritter joined fellow Democrats in voting for the cram-packed bills. “The reason I’ve been sitting here reading the bill most of the day is to make sure I’ve read the bill,” Ritter said.

On the opposite side of the Capitol, Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, said that in nearly every special session, there will be some lawmakers who feel the implementer bills have too much in them. “There were some education issues in that bill that deserve an affirmative vote,” she said.

But state Rep. Chris Coutu, R-Norwich, said he couldn’t support all-in-one legislation that was unveiled at the last minute without public scrutiny.

“I had my first opportunity to see this at noon,” Coutu said. “How can I vote on a 500-page piece of legislation when I only have a few minutes to read it?”

Included in the two bills were initiatives to:

 Allow municipalities to phase in revaluations of property for up to five years, even if the value decreases. Current law only permits phased-in increases. In announcing his support for the measure, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said the phase-in “helps local taxpayers and allows municipalities the flexibility they need to blunt the negative impact revaluation sometimes carries.”

 Eliminate the 1,248 minimum staffing requirement for state police and have Reuben Bradford, commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, determine the “sufficient” number of state troopers. There are currently about 1,080 troopers.

Malloy has called the mandate number “arbitrary” and not necessary for public safety.

“Public safety is being well preserved by the police force as is,” Ben Barnes, the governor’s budget chief, told reporters Tuesday.

The legislature and then-Gov. John G. Rowland established the mandate in 1998 in response to the killing of Heather Messenger, who was bludgeoned to death in her Chaplin home with the nearest state trooper 18 minutes away.

 Use $250,000 of $1 million in probate court surplus funds for “rapid re-housing and homelessness prevention” in southeastern Connecticut through the Norwich/New London Continuum of Care, a network of agencies offering one-stop-shop services. The grant money would likely be administered by the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut, according to Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington. “There are small amounts that can do a lot of good in individuals’ lives,” Maynard said.

 Provide $71,428 to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, a roughly $50,000 increase in state funding.

 Enact a package of jobs promotion initiatives that would expand the state’s Small Business Express Program to firms with up to 100 employees rather than just 50. It will also create new promotional campaigns for state-made products and tourism attractions as well as new incentives for hiring unemployed veterans.

 Subject “roll-your-own” cigarettes to state tobacco taxes and require the machines’ owners to pay an annual $5,250 licensing fee. The state loses an estimated $3.4 million annually by not taxing the self-made low-cost cigarettes, available at 15 to 20 tobacco shops throughout Connecticut.

An earlier version of the legislation was at the center of the federal investigation into Donovan’s congressional campaign. Authorities contend that the speaker’s now-fired campaign finance director used straw donors to conceal contributions from someone he believed was an investor in “roll-your-own” smoke shops.

 Increase to $25 million from $10 million the maximum value of real estate and property that the Odd Fellows Home of Connecticut in Groton may hold at any one time and still retain its state tax exemption status.

The Malloy administration inserted but abruptly withdrew a proposal that would have blocked some state government records from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. It would have pertained to financial documents submitted by businesses seeking state assistance to expand or relocate in Connecticut.

The administration sought to exempt those records from disclosure to maintain the confidentiality of economic development leads until a deal is struck. Companies enter such talks with the state “with the anticipation that they are private and will remain so, unless an economic development deal is achieved,” said Andrew McDonald, general counsel to Malloy.

The disclosure exemption would have applied to documents concerning Malloy’s “First Five” economic development program of grants and low-interest loans.

But following concerns about the proposal from the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, a coalition of news organizations, the administration on Tuesday morning asked legislative leaders to remove it. McDonald said the proposed exemption had been written too broadly.

McDonald described the proposal as an “outgrowth” of an unsuccessful records request by The Bulletin of Norwich that sought the names of companies that had inquired about the First Five program.

In March, the Freedom of Information Commission rejected the newspaper’s complaint against the administration’s refusal to release the names. The commission cited how the First Five program was not yet signed into law at the time of the information request, and mandatory disclosure wouldn’t be required.

The legislation would also:

 Provide a grant to Ledyard and Montville, phased in from 2012 to 2016, equal to 45 percent of the property tax value of land the federal government took into trust for the Mohegan Tribe and Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.

 Increase to $1,750 from $1,355 the annual state grant for each student attending a regional agricultural science and technology center.

 Create a new technical high school system board to govern regional technical high schools.

 Eliminate the requirement that the DEEP commission designate certain state parks’ trails for horseback riding. All state park trails would instead be opened for equestrian use unless otherwise forbidden.

 Move a key public reporting date for the state’s financial health to Nov. 10 from Oct. 15. Republicans noted how the new date would delay potential bad news until the November election and accused Democrats of political tactics. But Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the appropriations committee, said the proposal would merely fix scheduling conflicts and reflects no political calculation.



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