Two Big Bills, Hours Of Debate
(Updated 12:20 a.m.) Republican lawmakers spent most of Tuesday questioning Democratic lawmakers about the contents of two omnibus bills — one 468-page bill to implement the budget and another 192-page general government bill.
By early Wednesday morning, both bills had passed largely along party lines in both chambers. The Senate passed the budget implementer in an 22-14 vote shortly after midnight. Earlier in the day the chamber passed the general government bill also on a 22-14 vote.
The House had gaveled out by 11:20 p.m. after approving the government bill 84-46. Earlier, the House passed the budget bill 88-53. Four Democrats — Reps. Linda Orange of Colchester, Mary Fritz of Yalesville, Frank Nicastro of Bristol, and Daniel Rovero of Dayville — joined Republicans to vote against the measure.
Initially characterized as a special session to implement just the budget, the scope of the session grew to include hundreds of concepts that failed to pass during the regular legislative session adjourned May 9.
Some of the concepts included in the two bills involved levying a licensing fee on roll-your-own smoke shops, eliminating a state trooper staffing mandate, conveyance of state property, revisions to the education reform bill passed last month, and language allowing municipalities to phase in property revaluations over five-year periods.
“If you wanted to vote for one particular clause you’re stuck unless you have an amendment,” House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said. “So you gotta vote for the good with the bad.”
Cafero opined that some members of his caucus would like to vote for a portion of the budget implementer which expands the bipartisan jobs program created last October. However, putting it in a larger, 468-page bill makes it all but impossible.
The expansion of the jobs bill, including new credits for companies that hire veterans, received bipartisan support in the Senate before the end of the legislative session, but the House never took up the measure because the Senate couldn’t muster enough votes to pass House Speaker Chris Donovan’s minimum wage increase.
With Donovan on the sidelines for the special session, the two-year, 50-cent increase in the minimum wage didn’t make it into either of the two bills.
Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, pointed out that the general government bill had 173 sections, many of which are not related to each other and some of which haven’t even had a public hearing.
“There’s something old, there’s something new, there’s something big, there’s something small, there’s something we like, there’s something we don’t like,” McKinney said.
He said in his 14 years he doesn’t believe the conveyance bill, which transfers state land to municipalities, has ever been a partisan bill. But the language is now in this larger bill which makes it untenable to Republicans.
“We’re here doing all of these bills that didn’t pass during the time where we were required to pass it,” McKinney said.
He said the legislature should learn from the mistakes of the past. He said that when the hard-fought education reform bill was voted upon, the majority party admitted there may be mistakes because of haste. Many of those mistakes were corrected in the general government bill, while others appeared for the first time in the budget bills.
Cafero said 40 of the 111 concepts in the budget bill never had a public hearing.
House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey said what they debated for more than six hours Tuesday were not new bills. Rather, it was language to implement the budget.
The concepts in the implementer were given to the minority party four days prior to Tuesday’s vote, Sharkey said. And if there were a lot of important bills left on the cutting room floor at the end of the regular session, Sharkey said, Republicans helped to put them there.
Sharkey pointed to delays in the last couple days of session during which Republicans gain the ability to dramatically slow the legislative process by asking questions. As a result, Sharkey said a lot of bills died in both chambers.
“That is an absolute right that the minority party, or anyone in this chamber, has to carry out the legislative business of the General Assembly,” Sharkey said. “But if you choose that option, you know that bills are dying and then when that occurs, you can’t be heard to complain when some of the language, some of the work that we needed to do during the regular session does not get done and we have to take ourselves back to finish that work.”
Rep. Orange said she broke from other Democrats to vote against the budget implementer because she was unable to convince her colleagues to make changes to certain public safety concepts. She opposed eliminating trooper staffing on highway construction projects and the mergers of the state police dispatch centers. She said she could have voted to eliminate the minimum staffing requirement if the first two public safety issues had been addressed.
“It was a difficult vote for me to make, but I have to answer to my constituents,” Orange said.
Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, argued that a lot of what is in these bills will help government operate more efficiently and many of the provisions were necessary.
Looney said it’s not a perfect process because it’s a compendium of concepts, but it is a response to a genuine identified need.
He said many of the concepts were time sensitive and could prove problematic if they were to wait until the next regular session, which begins in January 2013.
One of those concepts is the increase in the licensing fee on the roll-your-own legislation.
Rep. Patricia Widlitz, co-chairwoman of the Finance Committee, said the legislature doesn’t want to cause anyone harm to their business, “but knowing this legislation is pending a couple of stores just popped up with these new machines.”
“If you let this go out another year, you’re going to have such an enormous problem on your hands you can’t take back,” Widlitz said during the floor debate. “When people choose to go into business, you enter that business at your own risk.”
Unlike the state of Vermont, she said, Connecticut is only charging a fee. It’s not banning the machines.
Tracey Scalzi, who owns two of the roll-your-own smoke shops, said the new fee and taxes associated with being a manufacturer and distributor will put her out of business before the bill goes into effect on Oct. 1.
Department of Revenue Services Commissioner Kevin Sullivan said the legislation will make the smoke shops with the roll-your-own machines distributors, manufacturers, and sellers.
Sullivan wasn’t necessarily convinced that a new licensing fee would put any of the shops out of business. However, it could change their profit margins. He said Scalzi has told him, “I can’t pay taxes that’s how I make my money.”
The issue isn’t the $5,000 manufacturing fee or the license to be a distributor, “if she could continue to sell cigarettes without taxation that’d be a small thing to do, but it’s the fact that you can compete without meeting the price of every other cigarette that allows her to make money,” Sullivan said.
Scalzi, who was at the Capitol Tuesday lobbying, said she received a lot of sympathy from Democratic lawmakers who were unable to vote against the bill because it implemented the entire budget. She said other lawmakers told her they felt pressure to vote for it because of the federal investigation which involved donations from what was thought to be an investor in a RYO shop.
“Why should I have to suffer?” Scalzi said.
Hugh McQuaid contributed to this report.