As the state legislature races to finish its work before the deadline of midnight tonight, lawmakers are already debating the session’s accomplishments and failures.
The tradition of the state legislature during election years has been to postpone controversial issues. In the so-called “short session,” lawmakers often put off issues that could become prominent in the minds of voters during the fall elections.
But this year was different as the legislature tackled and approved a variety of issues: repealing the death penalty, legalizing medical marijuana, permitting Sunday retail sales of alcohol for the first time in 80 years, closing the budget deficit, and passing public education reform.
The Democratic-controlled legislature has been chomping at the bit to pass three progressive bills that were vetoed by Republican governors over the past nine years. Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed the death penalty repeal and medical marijuana, while Republican John G. Rowland vetoed same-day voter registration.
As the first Democratic governor in the past 20 years, Dannel Malloy capitalized on the pent-up demand of Democrats who had repeatedly tried to push those issues – and finally found a supporter this year in the governor’s office. The political leanings of the legislature did not change much during those years as Democrats have controlled both chambers for the past 15 years, but the big difference this session was the switch in the governor. Nationally, Connecticut looks more blue than ever, but the shift on those three issues has been lying just underneath the surface in recent years.
Malloy stepped forward to say 2012 would be the “education session,’’ but the legislature became distracted with numerous other headline-grabbing bills that included Sunday sales and lacked a laser-like focus on education.
As Republicans and Democrats have clashed through the year, they also have different views about the success of the session. House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey says it has been a “very productive” year, while House Republican leader Larry Cafero strongly disagrees.
Two of the biggest mistakes this year, Cafero said, were repealing the death penalty and legalizing medical marijuana.
“I thought it was a shameful moment for us,” Cafero said of the death penalty repeal. “It has to do with this preposterous notion of banning it prospectively.”
The medical marijuana legalization was also a bad move, he said.
“A year ago, under this governor, at his insistence, we decriminalized marijuana,” Cafero said. “The combination of those two things are a monumental step backwards with regard to our drug policies for the state and more importantly, the message we’re sending to our kids. Principal after principal, housemasters, are coming into me unsolicited – and not in my capacity as a legislator but in my capacity as an expulsion hearing officer [in the Norwalk public schools] – saying, ‘Marijuana has become epidemic. The kids now believe it is legal.’ With the legalization for medicinal purposes, in the eyes of any 16-year-old kid, society is saying it is OK to smoke. I’m talking about kids getting high at the bus stop at 12 years old – lunchtime, after school, every day.”
But Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s chief spokesman, said that medical marijuana will help people in pain with major illnesses.
“Larry’s a good politician. He’s a nice guy,” Occhiogrosso said of Cafero. “It’s a good thing he’s not in charge here. … Trying to satisfy Representative Cafero is not what this administration is trying to do. If Governor Malloy agreed with everything Representative Cafero says, he’d be a Republican.”
Overall, Occhiogrosso said, “More meaningful change has been pushed in these last 16 months than in the last 16 years. By every measure, the state is so much better off than it was 16 months ago. Politics prevents Representative Cafero from admitting that.”
Occhiogrosso added that Malloy has helped create jobs during the past 16 months and closed a budget deficit that was projected at more than $3 billion when he took office.
Cafero, though, said the state’s fiscal standing is quite shaky because of Malloy’s policies that include the largest tax increase in state history and fewer budget cuts than Republicans had wanted.
“His budget, on every single level, has failed. Every level,” Cafero said. “We have deficits going out into the future and growing. We have a cash reserve problem. We are borrowing for operating expenses. His vision of GAAP has totally disappeared. Every promise he made in the first year of his term has been broken in the second. … The economy is in no better place. Connecticut is still business unfriendly and rated as such and seen as such. So, how did the session go? … It’s a failure.”
He added, “Increased spending. Increased taxation. No savings. Budgetary gimmicks. You end up right where you started. And that’s where we are.”
Rep. Steven Mikutel, a conservative Democrat who is one of the longest-serving House members with 20 years at the Capitol, said the session had “very mixed” results for him.
“I was terribly disappointed about the repeal of the death penalty,” Mikutel told Capitol Watch on the final day of the 2012 session. “It’s an indication that we’re out of step with the majority of the people of the state of Connecticut. As a legislator, I was embarrassed that we repealed the death penalty in the face of the Cheshire murders. We then imposed our verdict over them.”
Concerning the legalization of medical marijuana, he said, “It sends the wrong message to young people. We put ourselves in a position to say we know more than what the doctors are saying. It’s certainly going to encourage greater drug abuse. Marijuana is a gateway drug. I don’t care what they say. It’s the beginning of the legitimizing and legalizing of marijuana.”
At the same time, Mikutel gave Malloy high marks for public education reform as “the most significant thing” that was accomplished this year. The measure passed by 149 to 0 in the House.
“It’s not as bold as the governor’s initiative, but it moves us in the right direction,” Mikutel said. “I think we’ll end up with better teachers in the classroom. It’s not going to be drive-by evaluations any more.”
Even though education reform was dialed back after huge opposition from the public school teachers’ unions, Mikutel added, “A starving man welcomes a half a loaf of bread as opposed to no bread. Small steps in the right direction are better than going nowhere. Major issues in a democracy always end in a compromise.”
The main goal in election years, traditionally, is to pass adjustments to the two-year state budget, and that was done this year. Both the House of Representatives and the state Senate approved a $20.5 billion budget deal that hikes Metro-North Commuter Railroad fares by 4 percent, avoids bus fare hikes, and sends more than $2 billion to cities and towns to hold down property taxes.
Some of the controversial bills were watered down from their earlier, bolder versions, but the headline issues were approved.
After a fight by the teachers’ unions against Malloy over tenure, an overall compromise was reached on education reform that was passed by the state House of Representatives by 149 to 0. The most contentious issues had been removed, and legislators rallied around the plan.
Rep. Douglas McCrory, a longtime educator, described the bill as “novocaine legislation” in which people feel good for a short time before the medicine wears away and the pain returns.
The repeal of the death penalty was prominent in the minds of legislators and the general public following the murders of three members of the Petit family in July 2007 in their Cheshire home. Malloy and others said that the repeal of the death penalty would apply only for future crimes – meaning that the two convicted murderers of the Petit family would remain on death row. The repeal was done despite polls showing that Connecticut residents support maintaining the death penalty.
Among the bills that were still in trouble as midnight approached were raising the minimum wage and legalizing mixed martial arts.
One unsuccessful bill that drew heavy attention would have allowed Connecticut’s largest cities and towns bill use cameras to catch red-light runners at intersections. It got off to a promising start – including backing by Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and Malloy. But, after opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP, it died without even coming to a vote in the House or Senate.