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Historic Day For Legislature As Seven Vetoes Are Overridden

CHRISTOPHER KEATING

July 21, 2009

In a historic day at the state Capitol, the Democratic-controlled legislature overrode seven vetoes by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and took the first step toward establishing universal health care coverage in Connecticut.

The number of overrides tied the seven made in 1992 during the administration of Gov. Lowell P. Weicker the most since Republican Gov. Thomas Meskill was overridden nine times in 1974. .

But Rell won a victory in the most dramatic moment of the day as the controversial health care "pooling" bill failed by one vote in the state Senate when Democratic Sen. Joan Hartley of Waterbury whose support was key to an override was absent for the vote. The bill had overwhelming support in the House, along with 23 of the 24 Senate Democrats. A two-thirds majority is needed in both chambers 101 votes in the House and 24 in the Senate to override a veto.

"I wasn't aware that she was leaving the chamber," said Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, the highest-ranking senator. "She was not a fan of this bill. If she had been in the chamber and voted against it, it would not have been a surprise." Hartley could not be reached for comment.

While Democrats viewed the seven overrides as a bad day for Rell, the Republicans countered that they expected more overrides because the Democrats hold a two-thirds majority in both chambers. The seven overrides more than doubled the cumulative total of three during Rell's first five years as governor.

The most prominent veto overridden Monday allows a nine-member board to craft the outlines for the SustiNet universal health care system.

Democrats ignored Rell's complaints about the plan's future fiscal impact, even though the recommendations for implementation are not due until January 2011. The system would not take effect until 2012.

"While I am pleased that 13 of my 20 vetoes were not challenged or were upheld, including the health care pooling bill, I remain particularly concerned about the fiscal impact of the SustiNet bill," Rell said. "The Democrats in the legislature have not passed a biennial budget yet they have approved a new, $1 billion spending program without providing a way to pay for it. The simple fact is that the families and employers of Connecticut cannot afford the new taxes that will be required by this new program."

Democrats responded by saying that they actually did pass a budget, in late June, though Rell vetoed it. Universal health care is expected to be expensive, but so far no money has been allocated for SustiNet.

Democrats said that providing universal health care is an important goal. But both Rell and Republicans said the SustiNet program is simply too expensive at a time when the state is facing a $8.85 billion projected deficit over the next two years.

On mostly party lines, the House voted by 102-40, easily reaching the minimum 101 votes to override Rell on the universal health-care plan. Four moderate Democrats Reps. Linda Schofield- Simsbury, Brian O'Connor-Clinton, John "Corky" Mazurek-Wolcott, and Shawn Johnston-Thompson all voted with the Republicans to sustain Rell's veto on the universal health-care plan.

After a separate debate, the House voted to override the veto on the "pooling" bill that would have allowed small businesses, municipalities and nonprofit organizations to join the state's gigantic health insurance pool. With Hartley's decision to leave the Capitol before the vote, the Senate failed to gain enough votes for an override.

With near-lightning speed by legislative standards, the House debates on SustiNet and pooling were both were completed before 4 p.m. Unlike during the regular session, the Republicans refrained from asking numerous questions on the floor and thus avoided long debates. The two health-care bills had been debated for a combined 15 hours on the House and Senate floors during the regular session.

"We don't need to study the bill any further, and we don't need inaction," said Rep. Steve Fontana of North Haven, a Democrat who co-chairs the legislature's insurance committee, referring to the SustiNet bill. "We need leadership."

But Republicans disagreed. With multiple health-care proposals being offered at the federal level, the state legislature should wait until Congress takes action, Republicans said

Rep. Lile Gibbons-Greenwich and others said the biggest unresolved issue is the cost of universal health care.

"The 800-pound gorilla in the room (is) who is going to pick up the cost?" Gibbons said. "That is the scary part with all these proposed health plans. ... The problem is who is going to pay for it?"

The passage of SustiNet set off a spontaneous celebration in the Senate gallery for the measure's supporters, who were wearing their familiar red and yellow T-shirts.

Sen. Jonathan Harris, D- West Hartford, said the bill would not cost any money in the next two years and would not be enacted immediately.

Sen. Edith Prague said that nothing is mentioned in an official fiscal note about $1 billion per year, which was the projection made by Rell's budget office.

"People simply cannot afford the cost of health insurance," Prague said. "We can't cover everybody under HUSKY. Not everybody fits the eligibility. ... I seriously ask every one of you that we develop a state policy to offer health care to everybody."

"I don't think we should be Nero while Rome is burning and do nothing," said Sen. Joseph Crisco, a Democrat who co-chairs the legislature's insurance committee. "I say, this is the road, this is the journey that we have to begin."

Rell's 20 vetoes from this year's legislative session were the most by any governor in more than 25 years, but are far behind Meskill's record of 173 in 1971.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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