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Connecticut Lawmakers Pass Wide-Ranging Budget Bills

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(Courtesy Department of Social Services)

(Courtesy Department of Social Services)

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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Connecticut lawmakers returned to the state Capitol to finish work on two wide-ranging budget-related bills, but Tuesday’s special session was shadowed by the controversy surrounding House Speaker Chris Donovan’s congressional campaign and contributions linked to one of the bills being considered.

Tucked into one of the budget bills is a proposal to tax roll-your-own tobacco shops and require them to obtain manufacturing and possibly distribution licenses. Federal authorities recently arrested Donovan’s former congressional finance director and charged him with conspiring to hide the source of $20,000 in contributions from opponents of the bill.

Donovan, a Democrat, presided over the opening of the House of Representatives on Tuesday, appearing at the podium for the opening prayer and Pledge of Allegiance. But then he stepped aside and allowed a deputy House speaker to take over the deliberations. He was out of sight for much of the day’s lengthy discussions.

“I opened the chamber and my deputies, as always, are here to pitch in and that’s fine,” said Donovan, who planned to vote on Tuesday. Donovan has said he knew nothing about the alleged scheme and did nothing wrong.

Minority Republicans, who said they were not allowed to participate in crafting Tuesday’s legislation, took issue with the large amount of non-budget-related issues included in the two bills. Elements of more than 100 bills have been consolidated into those measures. They also accused Democrats of siphoning off surplus funds to pay for pet projects.

“This is not the way to run a General Assembly. This is not democracy,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk.

House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said leaders didn’t have a clear picture of what had passed or failed when the General Assembly adjourned last month, and said that’s why so many items were before lawmakers on Tuesday. Sharkey said he took issue with Republicans criticizing the budget implementation bills for a budget the GOPdid not originally support.

After debates that lasted for much of the day and into the night, both bills passed the House of Representatives and Senate along mostly party lines following hours of debate. The Senate finally wrapped up the voting early Wednesday night.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, objected to lawmakers holding two special legislative sessions on Tuesday, a parliamentary move to take up the non-budget issues. He made note of the “very dark cloud” hanging over the session _ a reference to the investigation over the roll-your-own cigarette contributions to Donovan’s congressional campaign _ and questioned how many legislators had actually read the bills.

“If you’ve read all 472 pages of one bill and 192 pages of another, stand up and say it, because I know you haven’t,” McKinney told his colleagues. “And I know, more importantly, none of our constituents have.”

The two bills spell out the details of many items included in the revised $20.1 billion budget passed earlier this year. There are also many items that failed during the regular session, such as a job creation bill supported by Senate Democrats that extends state financial assistance to additional small businesses.

Standing outside the House, Tracey Scalzi, owner of Tracey’s Smoke Shop and Tobacco LLC, held out little hope that lawmakers inside would strip the provision requiring roll-your-own shops to abide by the same laws that govern cigarette manufacturers who sell in Connecticut, including rules regarding licensing and taxes. The bill would take effect on Oct. 1.

Scalzi said she had been told last month that the budget-implementation bill would include language to help her stores. But Donovan’s campaign has since come under federal scrutiny, and she said few lawmakers are willing to help her now.

“There’s a big scandal that everybody is focusing on and not the bill at hand, which is 15 stores will close and 140 people will lose their jobs,” she said, predicting she’ll have to close because the new taxes and fees will negate any financial benefit for her customers.

“I’d lose more than 80 percent of my people that roll in my store,” she said.

Rep. John Piscopo, R-Thomaston, said lawmakers should remove the roll-your-own issue from the budget bill and deal with the matter next session, and hold a public hearing on the issue. He said it wasn’t fair to the business owners to suddenly change the rules.

But Rep. Patricia Widlitz, D-Guilford, co-chairwoman of the tax-writing committee, said the roll-your-own stores should have known they were making a risky investment.

“When people choose to go into a new business that is being discussed in the General Assembly to be eliminated _ that part of it _ I think you enter that business at your own risk,” Widlitz said.

 

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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