Jan 24, 2014
07:20 AMConnecticut Politics
2014 Connecticut Legislative Preview
On January 9, 2013, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy addressed the state’s general assembly on the inaugural day of the legislative session. It was three weeks after a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and legislators were ready and waiting to draft legislation. Malloy and legislators wore green ribbons and pins on their lapels, colors of the school that lost 20 students and six educators.
The legislative session of 2013 was dominated by the events at Newtown, including the public hearings and legislation on gun control, school security and mental health funding as well as arguments over reports and crime scene photos being made public.
The 2014 session begins February 5 and there will be residual matters to discuss but what will dominate the legislature is the subject that does in every even-numbered year in the capitol:
“Re-election. That’s going to be the predominant concern among all 187 lawmakers,” says Gary Rose, chairman of the Government and Politics department at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. “Virtually every vote will be based on electoral considerations.”
Every member of the General Assembly is up for re-election in November, as is the governor and lieutenant governor and other top officials. Every senator and every representative will use the floor of their respective chamber as a stump for each speech while each vote will be touted on lists of personal accomplishments for the campaign trail.
Unlike last year, legislation surrounding a specific event is not likely to be the most obvious issue to be tackled. Even Malloy has said he does not expect this session to be about guns—though he expects to discuss mental-health issues and school security.
The issue of stricter gun control was supported by many Republicans who broke party line to vote for the bill—an issue which angered conservative constituents. We shouldn’t expect to see that happen again this year, says Rose.
“When you get into those really emotional issues like that, it’s not too surprising to find some lawmakers abandon their party line,” he says. “But these issues that we’re talking about for this year, you’re once again going to see the drawn lines. These issues have real definitive Democrat vs. Republican sides to them.”
Proposals for new laws will come from committees, although representatives have their eyes on a few specific issues they’d like to see addressed this session.
Legislators will focus largely on areas that constituents are most concerned about, such as jobs, taxes and the state’s finances—though proposed solutions for those problems sharply divide Democrats and Republicans.
Job creation is on the agenda of Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden). “Clearly we’ll be looking at trying to help the economy,” says Sharkey’s spokesman Larry Perosino. “There’s been some positive economic signs recently, but there’s still a lot to be done.”
One example of an item to help with that is the expansion of the Department of Labor’s STEP Up (Subsidized Training and Employment Program). Currently the program gives financial incentives to companies to hire unemployed people and veterans. “It focuses on the two specific groups that are in particular need of assistance,” says Perosino.
Healthcare is also likely to be a hotly debated topic. Sharkey is interested in looking into changing the approval process for nonprofit hospitals merging with for-profit entities, which has been occurring more frequently throughout the state. The state’s Office of Legislative Research (OLR), which prepares an annual report prior to the start of the legislative session, has also singled out this issue for attention. Currently, the Department of Public Health and state’s attorney general need to approve a sale or conversion, but the General Assembly could look to add more oversight.
Last year, Sharkey re-launched the Municipal Opportunities and Regional Efficiencies (MORE) commission, which will continue to look at the consolidation of some local agencies. Among the items MORE has considered in the past—such as eliminating the state’s motor vehicle tax, which could come up again this year—is looking into ways to reduce the cost of public health departments and agencies by consolidation. They also plan to look at the cost of special education to individual towns, and to examine whether there’s a regional approach or a solution in having the state pay more.
As speaker, Sharkey decides which issues are brought to the floor for discussion and votes, which means Democrats will most likely drive the agenda for the session.
Last year’s session created numerous task forces that will report recommendations to the legislature this year. Among those remaining issues is how to deal with crime scene photos from such tragic events as the shootings in Newtown—the legislature passed a bill signed by the governor that keeps such items private while a task force discusses the issue.
Because the legislature passed a two-year budget last year, most of the blueprinting and number crunching is already done, although tweaks can—and probably will—still be made.
As the OLR report previewing potential topics for this year notes, the legislature created a school security grant last year that gives school districts money to make security improvements. The conversation is likely to continue as the legislature looks to help school districts mitigate safety concerns.
In addition to school safety, the legislature could also examine specific regulations for nightclubs—a few high-profile shootings last year prompted local legislators to call for new regulations.
Debates about education funding and standards may also come to the front as the state is one of 45 involved in the implementation of the new Common Core State Standards. The standards are being rolled out incrementally but are set for full implementation starting with the 2014-15 school year. That process may produce additional issues for the legislature.
Malloy, who will outline his vision for the upcoming session in his address on the first day, was still finalizing that message and the corresponding policy decisions in January. His spokesman Andrew Doba says the public can “rest assured” that Malloy’s focus remains on three areas of priority: Improving public education, creating jobs and working to improve state finances.
Ultimately, the issues debated by the legislature will be ones that will play well come November. “Leadership sets the agenda, but they’re going to want to tell their constituents what they are attempting to do,” says Rose. “We know a good portion of it never makes it onto the table; nevertheless we’re going to see lawmakers announcing more legislative initiatives to let their constituents know they are trying. But, this is all par for the course in an election year.”
2014 Connecticut Legislative Preview