by Jennifer Swift
Jun 1, 2013
08:15 PMConnecticut Politics
Activism and Expediency: Connecticut Legislators Pass Bold Gun Control, Immigration Laws, Balk at Big Budget Fix
Connecticut’s first legislative session after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the last one before Gov. Dannel Malloy shifts to re-election mode will be remembered for its activist agenda on social issues. It will not be remembered for bold action on balancing the state budget and campaign finance reform.
After being personally lobbied by family members of the 26 Newtown victims, the General Assembly passed the toughest gun control law in the country, addressed flaws in the state’s mental health system and voted to keep crime scene photos from Sandy Hook and other violent crimes from being released to the public.
It also voted to give undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses, to require labeling of genetically modified food, to ban children under age 17 from using indoor tanning beds and to raise the minimum wage.
But in an effort to avoid additional tax increases or spending cuts, legislators approved the introduction of Keno gambling in the state as an alternative source of revenue and relied on what some analysts called accounting gimmicks and unrealistic projections to address a state budget deficit.
And even as a corruption trial involving congressional campaign staff of former Speaker of the House Chris Donovan produced embarrassing details about the behavior of legislative leaders such as House Minority Leader Larry Cafero and House Majority Leader Joseph Arisemowicz, ethics was not on the General Assembly’s agenda. Instead, they rolled back some campaign finance reform measures that had been adopted in the wake of the Gov. John Rowland corruption scandal 10 years ago.
Gun control: Newtown reverberated throughout the upper and lower chambers of the General Assembly from the start of the 2013 session until the end. A series of public hearings on proposed gun control legislation, at the Capitol and in Newtown, stretched late into the night and included emotional testimony from Sandy Hook families and strong opposition from the gun manufacturing industry and gun enthusiasts. Gov. Malloy and Democrats have a big enough majority in the legislature to have passed a bill on their own, but in the end the process was bipartisan and perhaps more meaningful because of it. Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, whose district includes Newtown, and Cafero helped craft Connecticut’s new law, and it passed the Senate, 26-10, and the House, 105-44. The new law expands the state’s assault weapon ban to prohibit guns including the one that was used in the Newtown shooting, restricts ammunition magazines to hold no more than 10 rounds, imposes universal background checks on all gun purchases, creates a gun-offender registry and adds restrictions to the purchase of ammunition.
Crime scene photos: A bill that first only included provisions to restrict the release of photos and audio recordings from the massacre at Newtown without consent of family members was expanded to include all homicide victims. Photos or videos depicting the body of a homicide victim will not be released without the consent of the victim’s family.
A task force will be established under the new law to make recommendations balancing the privacy of victims and public’s right to know under the Freedom of Information Act.
The law also restricts, at least for a year, what have been described as chilling and gruesome audio recordings from police who first responded to Sandy Hook while the issue is studied. The bill passed almost unanimously in both chambers, with just two voting against in both the House and Senate.
Immigrant driver’s licenses: Undocumented immigrants will be allowed to obtain a Connecticut driver’s license in January 2015. The Senate voted nearly along party lines, 19 to 16, and the lower chamber passed it 74-55, both after hours of debate and lobbying from immigration and religious groups. Those convicted of a felony in the state will not be granted a license, though a Republican amendment that would have expanded that felony check to all states failed. The stipulations of the bill specifically state the license cannot be used for voting purposes.
GMO labeling: Connecticut became the first in the nation to pass a bill requiring genetically modified foods to be labeled as such. The bill, which passed with unanimous Senate approval and near unanimous approval in the House, will go into effect only if four other states adopt a labeling law. One state must border Connecticut, and the total population of the states must exceed 20 million based on the 2010 Census.
Minimum wage: The minimum wage will increase to $8.70 and again increase to $9 per hour in the second year of the biennium budget. The state’s minimum wage has been at $8.25 since 2010.
Campaign finance: Despite an ongoing corruption scandal involving illegal donations to state party committees and PACs, Democrats in the General Assembly voted to significantly increase the size allowed for such contributions. They also gave such committees the right to spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of individual candidates even if they are participating in the state’s publicly funded campaign finance system. Not one Republican voted for the bill. Democrats blamed the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which in 2010 led to elections where unlimited amounts of money were spent by outside groups while those candidates involved in the state’s public financing were without the same options. The contribution a person can give to the state party doubles from $5,000 to $10,000. The parties could previously only give $3,500 to a candidate in a house race and $10,000 for senate, limits which no longer exist under the new law. The law also tightens disclosure rules for independent expenditures.
Keno: When legislators were looking for ways to balance the budget, a popular gambling game adopted in surrounding states appeared to be the golden ticket. The game of Keno was added as a legal lottery game. The state will sign agreements with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and the Mohegan Tribe, who will receive 12.5 percent of what the state makes on the game. It’s estimated that Keno will generate $31 million over the two years of the budget.
Legal notices: Proposals to eliminate the requirement that local governments post legal notices in newspapers failed to pass the General Assembly again this year. As in previous years, it was pushed by municipalities arguing that posting notices on town websites should suffice, and was opposed strongly by daily newspapers arguing that it would erode citizens’ access to public information.
Red light cameras: Cameras installed at stop lights that automatically send tickets to motorists breaking the law failed again. The issue died in committee, as numerous questions were raised about the technology.
Tolls: Reintroducing toll booths, taken off the state’s roads after tragic incidents in the 1980s, failed to gain enough traction to even get past the public hearing stage this year.
Assisted suicide: A filibuster on deadline day for the public health committee killed a controversial bill that would have permitted doctors to aid in the suicide of terminally ill individuals with less than 6 months to live.
Car tax: Mayors and lawmakers bellowed when Gov. Malloy included in his proposed state budget the elimination of Connecticut’s motor vehicle tax, pointing to the added pressure it would put on local property tax payers. An outright repeal of the car tax was dead on arrival with legislators. A compromise bill that would have phased out the car tax over a number of years passed the House, but did not have enough votes to be introduced in the Senate.