Hartford — With not a minute to spare before its midnight deadline Wednesday, the General Assembly concluded a three-month session that proved one of the busier even-year sessions in recent memory.
In addition to the typical budget adjustments of a short year, the House and Senate passed several major and controversial bills that will legalize medical marijuana, allow Sunday liquor sales, end the death penalty for future crimes and enact a package of public school education reforms.
Many lawmakers credited Gov. Dannel P. Malloy with helping set the pace with his ambitious agenda.
“This has been one of the most ambitious short sessions I’ve ever been involved in,” Rep. Ted Moukawsher, D-Groton, said. “A lot of it came from the top — the chief executive.”
In December, Malloy announced that 2012 would be the year of far-reaching education reform in Connecticut. Shortly after New Year’s, he unveiled a multi-pronged plan to both deregulate the liquor business and end the ban on Sunday retail alcohol sales.
The second-year Democratic governor achieved much of what he sought to do, but not everything. He compromised on some of his farthest-reaching education reforms and was outright denied most of his liquor-pricing initiatives.
Malloy, who opened the session with his Feb. 8 State of the State address, delivered closing remarks from the Capitol’s Hall of the House of Representatives.
He thanked lawmakers for their public service, praised their legislative accomplishments on education, election law and labor, and declared that Connecticut remains on a rebound track from economic doldrums and previous years’ budget crises.
“That’s a lot of change. It required a lot of tough decisions to be made,” Malloy said. “Along the way, I have to admit, it ruffled a lot of feathers. That’s because change is hard.”
He continued: “But change is also necessary. While the world changed, and the states around us changed, Connecticut failed to make the changes it needed to. Now thanks to the men and women in this chamber, that is no longer the case.”
The governor did not say much about his near-term future agenda, but did call for additional efficiencies in state government and a continued conversion to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.
“There’s been a lot done in this short session,” Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, said earlier in the day.
Some of the biggest legislation included:
Sunday sales: The General Assembly lifted the 1933 ban on Sunday retail sales of alcohol. Once the governor signs the bill into law, package stores and groceries will gain the option of selling alcohol from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays and on many holidays.
Malloy said the change will make Connecticut stores more competitive with neighboring states. But lawmakers drastically scaled back his plans to overhaul the minimum pricing system and store ownership restrictions in existing liquor laws.
Education: The legislature passed an extensive education bill, championed by the governor, that adds $100 million in additional funding for public schools and starts several new programs, including intensive reading instruction in early grade levels. The bill also changes the K-12 teacher tenure system, requiring annual performance evaluations that will be tied to an educator’s employment status. It establishes a turnaround program for the state’s lowest-performing schools.
Election law: Legislators approved a bill allowing Election Day voter registration across Connecticut, starting with the fall 2013 municipal election. The current registration deadline is seven days prior to an election. The same bill creates a future online registration system.
Medical marijuana: Legislation allows patients with certain debilitating health conditions such as cancer, glaucoma and AIDS to receive doctor prescriptions for medical marijuana. The state Department of Consumer Protection will begin regulating the drug, and only pharmacists will be able to dispense it from a set number of approved “dispensaries.” The marijuana must only be produced by licensed, in-state growers.
Death penalty: A prospective law abolishes capital punishment in Connecticut for all but the 11 men already on death row. Future offenders convicted of “murder with special circumstances” will instead face life imprisonment without parole. Opponents of the repeal questioned whether the future crimes-only provision can withstand court challenges from death row inmates hoping to dodge execution.
Budget adjustments: Lawmakers OK’ed a $20.5 billion midterm budget deal with the Malloy administration that also closes a projected $200 million deficit in the current fiscal year ending June 30. The adjustment plan, which doesn’t raise taxes, makes up for smaller-than-projected tax revenues and additional education spending through various budget cuts, including reductions to higher education and the state’s marketing efforts. It also delays plans for a $75 million payment to continue the state’s conversion to more transparent accounting methods.
“Municipal aid was essentially held harmless, so we didn’t balance the budget on the backs of cities and towns,” state Rep. Tom Reynolds, D-Ledyard, said.
Unionization: Both chambers approved legislation that gives collective bargaining rights to thousands of home care assistants and child care workers who are paid through state programs.
But many bills did not make it through both legislative chambers, notably a bill that would have raised the state’s $8.25-an-hour minimum wage by 50 cents over two years.
“We just simply have not had the votes to pass it,” Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said this week.
“The basis of the opposition has almost uniformly been timing,” he said. “When we have increased the minimum wage in years past, it’s almost always been in good economic times or in times when the state of Connecticut has fallen behind surrounding states.
“What we have now are pretty challenging economic times, with employers struggling, and the fact (is) that Connecticut’s minimum wage is higher than New York, it’s higher than Massachusetts, it’s higher than Rhode Island.”
Other bills that failed included: Senate Democrats’ jobs bill; legislation authorizing tolls on the future second-half of Route 11, red light traffic enforcement cameras in large Connecticut cities and legalization of mixed martial arts.
In the final minutes Wednesday, the General Assembly voted to convene a special session later on to implement parts of the state budget.