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Legislative Session Ends Without Adopting A Budget


June 04, 2009

The 2009 legislative session may be remembered more for what lawmakers didn't do than for what they managed to accomplish.

As lawmakers stumbled toward a midnight adjournment Wednesday to finish five months worth of work, both the House of Representatives and the Senate debated relatively minor bills that were not among the year's most pressing issues, such as the sales tax liability of asphalt manufacturers.

The biggest failure was clearly the lack of a state budget, as Republicans and Democrats have been stuck in gridlock over how to close a deficit projected as high as $8.7 billion over the next two fiscal years.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell and Republican legislators have offered separate budget plans that would not raise taxes, while Democrats have offered more than $3 billion in tax increases to close the gap. But there has been little movement toward a compromise, and a special session is likely later this month.

Besides the budget, the legislature was unable to pass several high-profile bills that were debated this year, such as banning smoking in the state's two casinos, decriminalizing marijuana, outlawing the "zone pricing" of gasoline, and requiring employers to provide paid sick days to their workers.

Lawmakers also could not reach agreement on banning open alcohol containers in automobiles or allowing citizens to both register and vote on Election Day. One of the year's most controversial bills to change the legal and financial structure of Roman Catholic parishes was withdrawn almost immediately after it was introduced.

And one of the most significant measures of the session the abolition of the death penalty in Connecticut faces a certain veto by Rell.

"The bottom line is, our state is dying, and these guys are handing out Band-Aids," said Republican State Chairman Chris Healy. "At some point the public is going to figure out that they have wasted six months of valuable time."

To mark the lack of a budget, Rell declined to deliver the traditional end-of-the-session speech that governors have delivered in the House chamber for decades. At different times through the years, Govs. Lowell Weicker and John G. Rowland skipped the speech to show displeasure with the legislature's unfinished business.

Instead, Rell released a statement that focused not on the bills that have passed but on the work ahead.

"The legislative session is now a page of Connecticut history," Rell said. "It is time to turn the page, to move forward with commitment and resolve to work together to deliver to the people of this state a budget that will meet their needs now and in the future."

Health Care

But House Majority Leader Denise Merrill, a Storrs Democrat, cited a major package of healthcare bills, including the controversial SustiNet universal health-care proposal and a controversial "pooling" bill that would allow small businesses, municipalities, and nonprofit agencies to join the state's gigantic healthcare pool.

"One of the biggest things we did this session is try to address health-care reform," Merrill said. "The last five years or so, it's increasing in urgency. ... We're one of the first states to take action on coverage for children with autism."

But the fate of health reform remained unclear at the session's close with no funding for any major initiatives and Rell's support in question.

Other lawmakers said the General Assembly clearly had some noteworthy bipartisan accomplishments that included reforming the state's antiquated probate court system and prohibiting the use of machine guns by minors following a tragic accident in Massachusetts that killed a Connecticut boy.

Democrats passed other bills they considered top priorities, but it was not clear Wednesday night how many of those bills Rell might veto. Those include the listing of calories on menus at major fast-food restaurants and ordering a special election to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy overturning a 64-year precedent that allowed the governor to make the appointment.

Senate Democratic spokesman Derek Slap said lawmakers passed important bills this year that will improve life in Connecticut, even if they do not generate front-page headlines. Those include measures to create so-called "green" jobs and establish an enterprise zone at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks in an effort to create jobs.

Wild Animals, Farms

In bipartisan moves on the final night, the House approved bills on wild animals and dairy farms.

Lawmakers decided to ban the private ownership of chimpanzees following a vicious attack that blinded a woman in Stamford earlier this year. The watered-down bill calls for banning gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans, but does not cover the huge list such as alligators and pythons that had been in the original legislation. The maximum civil penalty for violating the law will be $1,000.

The House also approved a bill by a vote of 133 to 16 to provide relief to the state's $1 billion dairy industry. The measure, which the state Senate approved Tuesday, creates a special fund to help beleaguered farmers. The money will be raised through a $10 increase in the $30 fee for recording municipal land documents.

Connecticut's 151 dairy farms face enormous economic pressures, as 19 have sold off their cows and closed within the past year.

The bill's boosters say the benefits go beyond helping farmers. They say dairy farms provide jobs, and their bucolic pastures make Connecticut a nicer place to live. And with a renewed emphasis on locally grown food, the 351 million pounds of milk provided by local cows in 2008 are even more crucial, said state Rep. Terry Backer, D- Stratford.

"We are divorced from where our food comes from," he said.

Rell, a strong proponent of the measure, announced she would sign the bill about an hour after it received final legislative approval.

The Democrats' decision to put off adopting a state budget until a special session meant that the pace of the last day was not as frenetic as in past years.

Late Wednesday night, the chamber passed a resolution apologizing for slavery in Connecticut that had previously passed in the House.

But time ran out in the Senate on a teacher certification bill that would have made it easier for qualified professionals to make a mid-career shift and enter the teaching ranks. They would still have needed a teaching certificate but would no longer have to take content-area classes on subjects they already know.

Also, one public school in Granby had been seeking an exemption from the state's 180-day school requirement because of amount of time it had been closed because of the swine flu outbreak. But time ran out before the exemption was approved.

Earlier in the evening, Senate Republicans stretched out debates on bills to make a political statement about what, in their view, was the relative insignificance of the business that the Democrat-controlled General Assembly was conducting in the absence of adopting a budget.

Senate Republicans, for example, engaged in an obvious stall for hours on a bill that might otherwise have been discussed for 15 minutes and approved unanimously. It would have required the heads of the state's administrative services and social services departments to consult with the state comptroller and other officials and develop a plan for the state to buy prescription drugs in bulk for its health plans.

Sometimes members of a party stretching things out won't admit what they are doing. But on Wednesday, Healy acknowledged what was going on.

"Obviously, sure, why not?" Healy said.

By stretching out debates and in effect running out the clock, "we're stopping a lot of bad stuff from becoming law," he said. "They should have basically adjourned when they came in and decided that they're not going to do the one thing they're elected to do, which is to adopt a fair, sustainable state budget."

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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