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Southeastern Connecticut legislators lament killed bills

While state politicians from both sides of the aisle had positive things to say about the marquee bills that were passed this legislative session, southeastern Connecticut legislators also had a number of initiatives that didn’t make it out of the General Assembly.

Several bills stalled due to not making it out of committee, failure to be raised for a vote, or passing in one chamber but not coming up for a vote in the other during the session, which began Feb. 9 and ended on May 11.

In many cases the legislation is not truly dead, as there are plans for resurrection in future sessions.

Grid resiliency

State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, the Senate chair of the Energy & Technology Committee, said he had one bill out of committee he wished had been called in the House: a Public Utilities Regulatory Authority study on grid resiliency.

“We’re spending an awful lot of time focused on cyberattacks, and that’s a huge issue," he said. But after watching a "60 Minutes" piece about the physical security of utility substations, "it got me really worried that we should actually be thinking about critical infrastructure,” he said.

Senate Bill 177, An Act Concerning Grid Resilience, would have required the PURA chairperson to conduct a study on grid resilience in the state and report the findings to the committee by Jan. 1, 2023. It passed unanimously in the Senate but was not raised for a vote in the House.

Harmful communication with minors

State Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, put House Bill 5468, An Act Establishing The Crime Of Harmful Communication with a Minor, at the top of his list of bills he wishes had passed.

According to the bill analysis, it would establish “a new crime of harmful communication with a minor. Anyone who is age 21 or older is guilty of this crime when the person uses an interactive computer service to knowingly persuade, induce, entice, or coerce a minor” to share photos or videos for the sexual gratification of the person requesting the materials or which the requestor "then disseminates to one or more third persons for their sexual gratification.”

The bill also bans people from engaging in any communication "of an inappropriate sexual nature with the minor.”

"Some advocates were against the bill because they said, ‘You’re committing a crime before something bad happens.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, kind of like speeding. Speeding doesn’t bother anyone until they crash,’” Howard said of the bill.

The ACLU was one of several groups against the bill, writing in its public testimony, “It is clear that everyone must do more to stop the sexual harassment of children. But adding yet another crime to our general statutes is not the best method to address this problem. Under current Connecticut law, there are already offenses that encompass the types of acts encompassed by the proposed crime of harmful communication with a minor.”

The bill did not get a vote in the Senate. The House passed it unanimously.

Roll it back

Howard and Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook, supported legislation that would have reversed controversial policies adopted by the General Assembly in recent years regarding police accountability and the highway use tax.

House Bill 5351 would have revised statutes “concerning police accreditation, certification, training, immunity, use of military grade equipment and search and pursuit statutes, and prohibit the improvement or development of the State Police shooting range without a majority vote by certain legislative committees,” according to the bill’s summary. Most notably, a section of the bill restored consent searches for motor vehicles for police officers, which was taken away in the 2020 police accountability law.

“Stripping officers of that in the police bill, I understand why they did it, the legislature at the time, but I also know how necessary that is at times, so ... I crafted language to restore the consent searches,” said Howard, who also works as a police officer in Stonington. The bill had a public hearing but did not pass out of the Judiciary Committee.

Democrats in the House and Senate repeatedly have said they have no interest in supporting any legislation negating provisions from the police accountability law.

Carney said he was hoping the legislature would pass a bill repealing the highway use tax passed last year.

“Given everything going on with the economy and inflation and the cost of gas, I just felt like this would add insult to injury in terms of additional costs on trucks,” Carney said. “Once that goes into effect, it’s just going to be passed down to the consumer anyways, so people are going to pay additional costs on food, heating oil and other necessities delivered by truck like most everything is now.”

The bill did not get a public hearing. Carney introduced the language in an amendment during the debate on Senate Bill 4, a sweeping climate-change mitigation bill meant to reduce emissions and expand the use of electric vehicles in the state, but the amendment was defeated.

The other bill Carney mentioned he said he’s been pushing for years would eliminate a sales tax on gym memberships.

“Right now you pay 6.35% on a gym membership; to me that’s something you do to improve your health,” Carney said. “What we’ve seen during COVID is folks who are not healthy and overweight tend to have more serious cases of COVID and other health issues too.”

The bill had public hearings in the past, but not in 2022.

Education

State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, said she supported a bill that would “look at the Education Cost Sharing funding,” which is about $2 billion in aid the state annually distributes among school districts based on a fixed formula, and “bring more parity to the ECS funding that’s out there between magnet and charter schools.”

“And it would speed up the funding for underfunded towns,” McCarty continued. “It would hold harmless those that are currently over-funded, but it would add new resources and a stream of funding for magnet, charter. It really does address equity issues.”

McCarty said not many of her Republican colleagues supported the bill. According to its fiscal note, “The bill’s costs to the Department of Education are estimated to be $237.4 million” in 2025. McCarty said she wasn't thrilled about the cost, either.

The bill made it out of the Education Committee and then went to the House floor, but it was sent back to the appropriations committee, “and it didn’t come out,” McCarty said. Still, she anticipates the bill will gain traction as it is supported by the state’s largest education organizations, including the Connecticut Education Association, and could be passed in the future.

State Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, also supported the bill that would have reworked the ECS formula. “It wasn’t killed, it just needs more time,” she said. “We’ll continue to work on it as a group to get it ready for a long session next year.”

Conley said she wished Senate Bill 118, An Act Concerning The Use Of Certain Polystyrene Products, had passed. It requires schools to phase out the use of polystyrene food trays by 2024. She pointed out that such trays are used in Groton.

Polystyrene is a harmful chemical to humans and the environment.

Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said she wished HB 5490, a bill that would establish an income tax deduction for renters, had made it out of the finance committee because, “With the cost of rents skyrocketing, we need to help renters in some way,” she said.

Cheeseman also supported Senate Bill 247, “An Act Requiring Public Institutions of Higher Education to Establish a Policy Regarding Freedom of Expression on Campus.” The University of Connecticut submitted public testimony in opposition to the bill, saying academic freedom policies already exist on campus.

Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, also said he was in favor of the bill altering ECS funding.

Nolan also brought up a bill he co-sponsored, Senate Bill 260, An Act Concerning a Prescription Drug Cost Control Board, to cap “the cost of certain prescription drugs” and allow “for the importation of prescription drugs from Canada.” The bill did not make it out of the Aging Committee.

Budget

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, mentioned first Senate Bill 452, An Act Concerning The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund, which distributes revenues from the Mohegan and Mashantucket tribes' respective casinos, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino, to municipalities across the state.

"A lot of towns have been cut off to Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan dollars, but they shouldn't be," she said. "That was the original intent of that funding. It was not designed to just go to a few communities. Right now it doesn't go to all communities."

According to the bill analysis, it would have specified the fund's level in fiscal year 2024 and annually thereafter, and would have required transfers to the fund to increase to approximately $135 million in $20-million increments over four years.

"I'm trying to get back to the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan back to being distributed to towns at the level it should be at," Osten said. "Sometimes it takes a couple years to get a funding stream back where it should be."

The bill received bipartisan support in committee but was not raised in the House or Senate.

The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes supported the bill, as well as the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

“The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund distributes direct grants to municipalities in our state,” Mohegan Tribe Chairman James Gessner wrote in public testimony. “At its highest point, $135 million in grants were shared with all 169 of Connecticut’s cities and towns between 1998 and 2000. The amount distributed through the Fund has fluctuated over the years to its lowest level today of $51 million.”

“Given the revenue shared each year under our compacts, combined with the new revenue from sports wagering and igaming (online gambling), we strongly support increasing the money distributed to all Connecticut towns and encourage a higher percentage to be shared with our neighbors here in Southeastern Connecticut,” Gessner continued.

House Bill 5474 would have established "a property tax exemption for property on the land of a federally recognized Indian tribe that is owned or leased by a third party,” according to its joint favorable report. Nolan, a co-sponsor of the bill, said exempting personal property on tribal land from local taxation made sense because it seems like “double taxation.”

Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation Chairman Rodney Butler, along with Ledyard Mayor Fred Allyn and Montville Mayor Ron McDaniel, testified in support of the bill. The bill made it out of the finance committee but was not raised for a vote in the House.

s.spinella@theday.com

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