Legislature passes flurry of bills in session's closing hours

Hartford — In the last three hours of the 2014 legislative session House and Senate lawmakers read legislative bills more quickly, chose select bills to debate and threw previously agreed-upon bills on the consent calendar, which nearly always gets approved.

In the last 30 minutes the Senate passed a bill to create a Connecticut Port Authority and a bill that permits municipalities to create regional dispatch centers. The vote was final passage and the bills go to the governor for signature or veto.

Both the House and the Senate passed the omnibus bill that implements the state's fiscal year 2014-15 budget and includes legislative surprises such as a reduction in judges' pensions, property tax relief for Montville and Norwich and the development of a bioscience promotion program in southeastern Connecticut. The 300-page bill will also go to the governor.

"The last two years have been the privilege of a lifetime," said House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden. "We as a whole House are a family, and I believe that when we work together we work best. When we are wrong we must reconcile, when we are wronged we must respond, and it has been my privilege to have the support of all of you."

The Department of Economic and Community Development would be required to work with Connecticut Innovations Inc. and Connecticut United for Research Excellence Inc. to design a program to market and support bioscience businesses in southeastern Connecticut, according to the implementer bill. The legislation does not include specific funding for the program.

The original bioscience bill for southeastern Connecticut was not called for a vote. It would have required the DECD commissioner to send out a request for proposals and award a grant to the organization that would create a bioscience marketing and development plan. It would have required the DECD to provide a grant of an unspecified amount to the organization.

Under the implementer bill the state would provide $1.1 million worth of property tax relief for towns and cities in order to hold them harmless. Municipalities whose combined state-owned property Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT), nonprofit college and hospital PILOT and the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund grants are lower next year than this year would receive this funding. Two towns that would get additional payments are Montville, $345,327, and Norwich, $3,211, according to the bill.

Norwich was also given another benefit in the omnibus bill. The city's requirement to pay for at least one-third of the costs for improving the Rose City Senior Center if it were to receive a $690,000 grant was waived. The State Bond Commission initially approved the grant funds on Jan. 9, 2014.

A solution to lawmakers' complaints about judges being able to receive pensions of about $100,000 annually after serving for three or four years was also provided in the implementer bill.

Under current law judges must retire at age 70 and get a full pension, two-thirds of their annual salary, no matter how many years they have served. When New London attorney Timothy Bates, 66, and Anthony V. Avallone, 66, were nominated by the governor and approved by the House and Senate, lawmakers took the opportunity to question current law.

"Our constituents, I know many of mine, are shocked to hear that under the current system, that you can be a judge for as little as one year and still draw a pension of $100,000 for life," said state Rep. Steve Mikutel, D-Griswold, last month.

The bill would reduce a judge's pension by 10 percent for each year less than 10 years served. For instance, a judge who retires after three years of service would receive an annual benefit of about $30,133 instead of $100,443, according to the bill.

The bill also clarified that $635,000 was appropriated to the state Department of Veterans Affairs for the administration of the Soldiers', Sailors' and Marines' Fund. The fund, which was established in 1919, helps state veterans in need and their families with their rental or mortgage interest payments, utility and medical bills, funeral expenses, food and clothing. About 3,000 families are helped by the fund each year.

During the House debate, state Rep. Dan Carter, R-Bethel, asked whether the American Legion was comfortable administering the fund with about $600,000 because the organization had initially asked for $900,000.

State Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said that the American Legion had worked with the appropriate legislative committee on the funding proposal. They have tried to come up with a solution that works within the constraints of the budget, Walker said.

The 300-page bill also included $400,000 for the Office of the State Comptroller to support the establishment of the Connecticut Retirement Security Board that would study whether it was feasible for the state to create a state-administered retirement program for private, low-wage workers to invest in. Many House Republicans said they were opposed to this part of the omnibus bill because a state-administered retirement program for private workers would burden private businesses, they said.

"We are concerned with the costs that this will entail for private companies," said state Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton. "It's concerning that employees will be automatically enrolled unless they choose to opt out." One part of the bill that both Republicans and Democrats could agree on was $500,000 for a comprehensive tax study.

This is the result of a bipartisan effort, said state Rep. Sean Williams, R-Watertown.

Individual bills of interest to southeastern Connecticut that were passed in the last 30 minutes of the legislative session included the following:

-- The development by Oct. 1, 2015, of the Connecticut Port Authority, which aims to bring more business to Connecticut's ports in New London, New Haven and Bridgeport.

-- The state gave permission to municipalities to create a governing board for their regional dispatch centers. New London, Waterford and East Lyme had requested the legislation and would likely create a governing board made up of local representatives to run a police, fire and emergency services regional dispatch center if passed.

The House also passed a bill that would create a three-year moratorium on the storage of fracking waste and require the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to create regulations in the last five minutes of the session. It was final passage and the bill goes to the governor for his signature.

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