By SUSAN HAIGH
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Connecticut lawmakers closed out a legislative session on Wednesday that finally resolved some perennial issues at the state Capitol.
Over the past three months, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly has voted to legalize medical marijuana for adults, abolish the death penalty for future crimes and allow the retail sale of alcohol on Sundays. Lawmakers also approved an education overhaul bill that backers say stands a better chance than past efforts at closing the state’s achievement gap between rich and poor students.
One main reason for the flow of legislation is Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the state’s first Democratic governor in about two decades, who pushed for some of the bills or announced his support, giving lawmakers the green light to push the legislation, such as medical marijuana.
“I think that there has been a bunch of legislation, a bunch of ideas, that have been percolating in this building for years that have come to fruition in other states, that were all backed up because we had Republican governors for 16 years who simply refused to move Connecticut forward on a bunch of different fronts that are really important to people,” said Malloy’s senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso.
As usual, it was a race to the midnight adjournment on Wednesday.
The House of Representatives gave final legislative approval to a bill that would lead to minimum performance standards for emergency preparation and response for electric and gas companies. The legislation stemmed from two storms that hit the state last year _ the remnants of Hurricane Irene and an October snow storm _ and left thousands of people without power for days.
However, they did not vote to increase the minimum wage _ a key issue for House Speaker Christopher Donovan, one of numerous lawmakers who’ve announced they are not seeking re-election. Also, the House failed to vote on the Senate Democrats’ jobs bill that expands existing business assistance programs to more companies, would be voted on before adjournment.
State Rep. Terry Backer, D-Stratford, a veteran legislator, said he believes that an acknowledgement from the governor’s office that the governor plans to sign a particular bill does help push that legislation through the process. But that’s not always the reason for a perennial issue to finally get passed, he said.
“Sometimes it just takes time for things to get ripe,” he said.
Some of Malloy’s legislative proposals were substantially changed during the legislative process. For example, the governor called for changing the state’s pricing and permitting systems for liquor and allowing certain convenience stores to sell beer. But lawmakers removed those and other ideas, creating a task force to study those issues and report back to the legislature.
Instead, the final bill allows retail sales of alcohol on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Supermarkets, which already sell beer, would be able to sell beer on Sundays, as well.
Compromises were also made on the education reform bill. For example, while the bill still creates a Commissioner’s Network that allows the education commissioner to take steps to turn around 25 low-performing schools, teachers play a greater role in that process. The bill allows each school to create a committee of teachers, parents and administrators to come up with plans to turn around their schools and present them to the commissioner.
The state’s teachers’ unions voiced concerns over the original language in Malloy’s bill, which they said allowed the commissioner to skirt their union contracts to push through changes at the struggling schools. But Occhiogrosso said it was “never the goal” of the legislation to “take away people’s collective bargaining rights.”
“What he was trying to do was to find a way to allow for quicker negotiations in the turnaround schools in order to be able to affect change as quickly as possible, and that’s what was accomplished in the bill,” he said.
Occhiogrosso said while Malloy has proposed “big reforms,” he has always understood that he’s not going to get everything he wants. He said the governor has been unfairly accused of falling short with his proposals when they’ve been scaled back.
Sharon Palmer, president of the Connecticut Federation of Teachers, said she believes Malloy ultimately compromised on key parts of the education bill because he realized it was in everyone’s best interest.
“For all the fighting, for all the arguments, we came to a conclusion that we think is good for everybody,” she said. “Look, I’m Irish, he’s Irish, lots of arguments at the kitchen table growing up. And that’s what this was. It was a family argument, and we’ve come to a conclusion that we’re all going to try this way of doing business for the sense of family peace.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)