Legislators scrambled Wednesday to finish their work on the final day of the 2013 session – granting final approval for more than $2 billion in bond projects, allowing police to withhold crime-scene photographs of murder victims, and legalizing the fast-growing sport of mixed martial arts.
Lawmakers also set aside up to $50 million for a new school at Sandy Hook in Newtown and accepted $35 million from the embattled Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority in exchange for assuming the legal liability for closing landfills in Hartford, Waterbury, Shelton and Ellington. They also raised salaries for judges by more than 10 percent by July 2014 and rejected an amendment that would have tightened conflicts of interest among legislators.
Acting with little sleep, lawmakers pushed toward the culmination of five months of work on a wide variety of topics. Under the state's Constitution, any bills that failed to pass by midnight must wait until the next session.
It was still dark outside the Capitol when the action began – at breakneck speed. Between 1:17 and 2 a.m. Wednesday, both the House of Representatives and the Senate approved a controversial freedom of information bill that was sought by the families of 20 children and six women killed in the Newtown massacre on Dec. 14. Within 12 hours, the bill was signed into law without ceremony by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy – completing a frenetic conclusion to more than a month of secret negotiations on the measure that bypassed the normal legislative process.
The new law says that police can withhold any crime-scene photos and videos that "could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the victim or the victim's surviving family members.''
Many lawmakers were still at the Capitol at 2 a.m. Wednesday, and then they returned later that morning to begin deliberations once again. The House then debated until the midnight deadline as they prepared to hear a speech by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy early Thursday.
Malloy harkened back to the beginning of the session, which was dominated by the legislature's response to the Newtown shootings.
"Every one of us would give anything to go back to December 14 and prevent what happened that day. But we can't,'' Malloy s early Thursday in a six-minute speech. "The best we can do is to go forward in a way that honors those we've lost. And in the halls of the Capitol this session, we've seen that commitment to push forward. We saw it in the Newtown families, whose continued presence here has been an inspiration to all of us.''
He added, "Make no mistake about it – the bipartisan gun violence prevention bill we passed will make our state safer. The funding we secured for Project Longevity and other violence reduction efforts will help cities fight senseless violence on our streets. The debate on gun violence in America is by no means over. We still have much work to do as a nation. But we did make progress here in Connecticut. We accomplished these things. And by and large, we did them together on a bipartisan basis.''
Lawmakers gave final approval to more than $2 billion in new state borrowing for construction and other projects, including open space acquisition, farmland preservation, school construction, economic development projects, and transportation improvements.
The package includes $35 million for improvements to the XL Center. It also provides money for a study to widen the busy I-91 and I-84 interchange in Hartford, calls for a study of the heavily used commuter railroad tracks between New York and New Haven. Small airports around the state that had their funding threatened by recent federal budget cuts would also receive grants-in-aid.
Rep. Livvy Floren, a Greenwich Republican who has opposed various spending projects, broke with her party in supporting the measure.
"I've now realized that we can never let the perfect become the enemy of the good," she said.
But other House Republicans took issue with the package because the state is planning to borrow $750 million to pay down an accumulated deficit of $1.2 billion it owes under generally accepted accounting practices, known as GAAP.
Deputy Republican Leader Vincent Candelora likened the new borrowing to homeowners taking out a second mortgage to make monthly payments on their first loan. Republicans maintain that the state's new budget doesn't even comply with the GAAP rules because of how it accounts for the state's Medicaid costs.
They also took issue with a part of the GAAP-paydown plan that allows the governor to reduce the state's payments on those bonds if the state begins running a budget deficit. Such a move would require a super majority vote in the legislature. GOP lawmakers complained that that structure is similar to the state's spending cap, which they have said was manipulated during the budget-crafting process.
But Malloy and Democrats argue that the state has repeatedly postponed GAAP accounting, pushing it back on a regular basis under former Republican governors and the Democratic-controlled legislature during those years. Malloy repeatedly talked about GAAP during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, and one of his first acts in office was signing an executive order regarding the accounting method. Legislators have been postponing GAAP since the days of Gov. Lowell P. Weicker, when the legislature voted in 1993 to make the accounting change starting July 1, 1995. But the change was never fully implemented.
The House backed the bond package 99 to 43, mostly along party lines after three hours of debate. The bill passed the Senate 21 to 14 along strict party lines Tuesday night and now goes to the governor for his signature.