$50 Million For New Sandy Hook School, Mixed Martial Arts Pass In Legislature's Final Hours

The Newtown school massacre overshadowed the entire legislative session, and it continued to occupy the attention of lawmakers in the waning hours.

On Wednesday, in addition to passing a law blocking the public disclosure of photos and other records of homicide victims, the legislature authorized up to $50 million in bond funds to raze and Sandy Hook Elementary School and build a new school. Newtown's typical state reimbursement rate for school constriction projects is 24.64 percent.

"The hope is that by putting it in the bonding package, it will allow us the flexibility to access the money earlier, but also access federal dollars to help defray the costs for the new school at Sandy Hook," said Senate Republican leader John McKinney, who represents Newtown.

Three federal lawmakers — Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and Rep. Elizabeth Esty — are pursuing legislation that would allow the use of federal dollars to help cover the construction costs. But federal money has never been used to pay for school buildings, and the lawmakers acknowledged that their proposal is "a heavy lift."

"I don't underestimate the difficulty of getting anything done in Washington, D.C.," McKinney said. "But what happened in Sandy Hook was unprecedented. … I think we should be hopeful that they'll bring home some money."

Undocumented Drivers

The last day of the regular session started off with a scramble over a controversial bill to allow drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants. An obscure sentence that was buried in a highly detailed "implementer" bill would have changed the effective date of the drivers' licenses program from January 2015 to July 1.

The sentence was buried on page 355 of a 508-page bill, but it was caught by House Republican chief counsel Deborah Hutton. Hutton has been reading bills at the Capitol for the 22 years, and her spotting of the sentence prompted the proposal to be withdrawn.

But no one in the Capitol admitted to inserting the provision into the gigantic bill that Republicans saw for the first time on Wednesday morning. All legislators and staffers who were interviewed backed away from the proposal, saying they were not involved.

Once the controversial sentence came out, the House debated for only several minutes before approving the implementer bill 92 to 53 with five members absent on a mostly party line vote at about 10:10 p.m. Wednesday. It passed soon after in the Senate as Democratic Sen. Gayle Slossberg joined with Republicans against it.

Foley Amendment

During this year's session, former Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley of Greenwich ran into a firestorm of protest from both Democrats and Republicans when he testified that various legislators had conflicts of interest because their employment conflicted with their legislative duties. He said they should be prevented from working for firms that lobby the legislature, as well as public employee unions that have issues in front of the General Assembly.

Sen. Joe Markley, a Southington Republican, offered an amendment Wednesday night that codified many of Foley's thoughts in an effort to improve ethical practices at the Capitol. The measure was rejected 21 to 14 on strict party lines as Democrats said the amendment was flawed, and they needed to send the bill to the House on the last night of the legislature without a controversial amendment.

"The general public has very much lost confidence in our integrity,'' Markley told his colleagues on the Senate floor after 8 p.m. "I was surprised at the way [Foley] was handled for what I thought was an essentially good idea. I was rather amazed at the resistance it attracted.''

He added, "My point is not to catch anyone. The point of the law is not to create lawbreakers, but to enable good behavior.''

Haddam Land Swap' Repealed

Both the House and Senate Wednesday voted to repeal the 2011 legislation that provided for the so-called Haddam land swap — a controversial deal approved by lawmakers to let private developers acquire 17 acres of state-owned land overlooking the Connecticut River in exchange for 87 acres of woods they owned elsewhere in town. Many local residents and statewide conservationists opposed it.

The swap died last year when economic factors made the developers unwilling to go through with it. But opponents worried that the deal could be revived if the 2011 legal language weren't wiped from the statutes. The House member who represents Haddam, Democratic Rep. Philip J. Miller, put together the repeal legislation as part of a larger land conveyance bill under which the state disposes of surplus properties. The local state senator, Republican Art Linares, also argued in favor of the repeal in the upper chamber Wednesday.

Tougher Texting Penalties

Lawmakers also approved tougher penalties for people who text while driving. The Senate voted 26-9 to pass a wide-ranging transportation bill that increases the fines for texting, as well as other fees.