HARTFORD – As state lawmakers lauded the way both parties came together to support a balanced $51.1 billion two-year spending plan, legislators feverishly worked late Wednesday to put their final touches on last-minute bills – including one featuring a massive education omnibus package – prior to the day’s 11:59 p.m. deadline of voting on legislation.
House Speaker Matt Ritter, a Democrat, echoed the sentiments of lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle who said the bipartisan work he saw this session was evident not only in the lopsided votes in both chambers in favor of the budget, but also in the willingness of Democrats and Republicans to strongly argue their points but also find compromise where necessary.
The approved budget, which had the strong support of Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, includes an income tax cut benefitting more than 1 million tax filers, or about 60 percent of taxpayers.
“I just read that Oregon hasn’t met in a month because the senators just left the building,” Ritter said in a meeting with reporters Wednesday morning. “Think about that – they meet and they don’t have a quorum. We’ve tried to create a culture in the House whereby people have to learn to compromise – in dealing with [people] stretching from the most affluent communities in Greenwich to rural eastern Connecticut… We are a bit more of a moderate state than I think we want to recognize and sometimes that’s painful. But, I think overall, it’s a good thing because we do work a lot together and Connecticut is very different from many states around the country that way.”
House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, late Wednesday in the House Chamber called the past several months “a good productive session.” Candelora thanked Ritter and House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, saying, “They worked with us in getting business done. We appreciated the work and the humor.”
The state’s 832-page budget is, by all accounts, daunting.
While some Republican legislators, like Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, the ranking member of the Finance, Revenue & Bonding Committee, said they were hoping for deeper tax cuts, ultimately, Cheeseman said, the bill had “no gimmicks” and that she couldn’t in good conscience vote against it.
In the end, Rob Sampson of Cheshire was the sole Republican voting against the spending plan, and 41 of 53 Republican House members voted for the measure.
Many of the last-minute bills offered Wednesday on the last day of session were okayed unanimously with little discussion. Other measures, however, sparked heated debates as members looked for support with just hours left in the session.
House members discussed ‘An Act Concerning Transparency in Education’ for several hours Wednesday afternoon with one of the few Republicans voting in favor of the measure making an impassioned plea on behalf of bullied children.
“We need to look at creating a good nurturing school climate, such a climate that takes the entire community into consideration,” said Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford and a ranking member of the Education Committee.
The act was approved by the State House largely along party lines, 104-47.
Arguing in favor of the omnibus bill, McCarty said the bullying provision of the bill “will be transformational and will make Connecticut a leader in creating a good school climate where we will have fewer incidents of bullying.”
McCarty noted that the bill calls for schools to have a school climate coordinator, a school climate specialist and a school climate committee work with all parties to address incidents of bullying, including teachers, school administrators, parents, the student being bullied as well as the student doing the bullying.
“This is about creating a model school climate and to bring everyone together so everyone feels respected,” McCarty said during the hearings. “Empathy is a very important ingredient here. We want to create healthy and safe schools and we want to move away from being punitive to being restorative.”
Responding to lawmakers who said it appeared the bill was giving an out to bullies, McCarty said, “It is not to not hold the student accountable, but rather to help that student understand from their behavior so that behavior is not repeated,” with the engagement of a new school climate coordinator, school climate specialist and school climate committee.
Jeffrey Currey, D-East Hartford and a member of the Education Committee, said “The laws on bullying the last 20 years haven’t worked. This is not about being soft [on bullies], but about moving in a new direction to make Connecticut a leader on this issue.”
Noting that suicide is the “second highest cause of death of our youth,” McCarty told fellow lawmakers that grants to hire mental health specialists in schools are also part of the bill.
There are several other provisions in the bill related to student resource officers; education apprenticeship initiatives; plans to establish increased educator diversity; teacher recruitment; changes to new wording on expulsions and suspension; and a school meals pilot program for Alliance Districts, among others.
A provision to mandate in-person training for local school board members, however, was met with strong opposition by several Republican members.
“There isn’t much in this legislation that gets me excited to support it,” said Rachel Chaleski, R-Danbury. “The bill is overreaching. I take issue from taking marching orders from the state.”
And, Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, said: “Training for board of education members? I don’t know that we can mandate someone be trained by someone or something. I’m concerned about mandated training for elected officials.”
Officials claimed there was money in the state budget to cover all aspects of the education bill, but the bill itself didn’t come with a price tag.
The State Senate spent about nine hours discussing SB 998, housing and zoning bill ‘An Act Establishing a Tax Abatement for Certain Conservation Easements.’ The measure passed 23-13, by a near party line vote.
Voting against the bill was Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, who said during the debate: “This is a shot across the bow against our centuries-old tradition of local control. It is the product of bad legislative process…. This newly amended bill contains new policies which never had the benefit of a full public hearing, and it represents a mish-mosh of different bills which contradict each other.”
Several Republican House members also took issue with “An Act Establishing a Task Force to Study Issues Related to the Repeal of the Motor Vehicle Property Tax.”
The measure passed 87-63 without Republican support.
Opponents included Joe Zullo, R-East Haven, who argued that getting rid of the motor vehicle tax would translate into hikes in other taxes.
“We will have homeowners insurance policies go up. If we want to look at solutions to repealing the motor vehicle property tax levels, let’s look at all solutions, not just a few,” Zullo said. “We worked hard to achieve middle class tax relief, but if you own a house you will get whacked here.”
Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, warned the bill would have “unintended consequences.”
“We go into these things with blinders on without seeing the unintended consequences,” Dubitsky said. “Towns will get hit one way or another. If you stop taxing cars it will mean an increased tax on your house … We create a lot of problems we try to fix. Getting rid of the car tax will mean less affordable housing.”
Ritter called passage of “An Act Concerning the Environmental Justice Program of the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection” one of his top priorities. The bill passed the House 110-40 without opposition late Wednesday.
The measure, which had the strong support of leaders from large urban centers in the state, is aimed at poorer and distressed communities and neighborhoods with significant minority populations.
The bill provides DEEP and the Connecticut Siting Council the power to deny permits – with input from community members – for new and expanded facilities including electricity generating plants with a capacity of more than 10 megawatts, sludge or solid waste incinerators, and sewage treatment plants with a capacity of more than 50 million gallons per day.
Irene Haines, R-East Haddam, said the bill “is very transparent. I do like this legislation.”
Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, said environmental justice is “a topic I’ve been talking about for eight years. It’s why I came to Hartford. This is a good step in the right direction, as Waterbury is a poster child for environmental justice.”
Dubitsky, who represents the small northeastern town of Chaplin, said he disagrees “with the concept of this bill.”
“I understand this legislature feels it needs to protect people, however, in my town, a distressed community and an environmental justice community, we’d never be able to have a facility in our town without the permission of the state,” Dubitsky said. “A town like mine should be able to make up its own mind. Small towns like mine are collateral damage. We get swept in with big cities and have to accept the consequences.”
Earlier in the week, the State House and Senate voted to increase funding for both higher education and K-12; voted to give a 2.5 percent cost of living increase in Fiscal Year 2024 to non-profit providers — they had asked for 9 percent in 2024 and 7 percent in 2025 — voted to deposit $3.3 billion into a Rainy Day Fund; and approved a measure that includes steep cuts to Shore Line East funding.