The Dec. 14 Newtown school shootings dominated opening day at the state Capitol Wednesday, as lawmakers arrived to face a projected budget deficit of $1 billion in the next fiscal year and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy exhorted them to take action to prevent another gun tragedy.
Breaking up at times, an emotional Malloy asked the hushed House of Representatives chamber to remember the families and heroes of Newtown as he began his State of the State address.
"As a state and as a community, we will continue to do whatever we can for the families of Newtown. But we also must ask ourselves: What is our responsibility? To those we've lost, to one another, to the children, and to future generations?" Malloy said.
"During this legislative session, we're going to begin to answer those questions together," Malloy said, wearing one of his trademark green neckties. "Let us do everything in our power to ensure that Connecticut never again suffers such a loss; that we take real steps to make our kids and our communities safer."
The speech began with extended applause for Newtown First Selectwoman Patricia Llodra and Superintendent Janet Robinson, who sat beside Malloy's wife, Cathy.
Legislative leaders in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly have already announced an ambitious gun-control agenda, including expansion of the state's existing assault weapons ban to cover the Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle and high-capacity ammunition magazines used by Adam Lanza in killing 20 first-graders and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Mental health issues also will top the agenda, as officials seek ways of intervening before troubled individuals such as Lanza harm others. Lanza ended his shooting spree by killing himself as police arrived; he had earlier killed his mother at the home they shared in Newtown.
Malloy noted in his speech that he appointed a 16-member special commission to study how to respond to the Newtown massacre. But even now, he said, "there are some things we know already."
"We know that we must find ways to better respond to those with mental health needs. As a society, we have an obligation to take action in a meaningful way when a person seeks our help or demonstrates a need for it. We must balance our respect for individual rights with our obligation to provide for the greater public safety."
"And when it comes to preventing future acts of violence in our schools, let me say this: More guns are not the answer. Freedom is not a handgun on the hip of every teacher, and security should not mean a guard posted outside every classroom. That is not who we are in Connecticut, and it is not who we will allow ourselves to become." That statement drew applause.
Malloy also said that gun issues must be dealt with by Congress. "We also know that this conversation must take place nationally. As long as weapons continue to travel up and down I-95, what is available for sale in Florida can have devastating consequences here in Connecticut."
In Connecticut and elsewhere, legislative resolve in the aftermath of tragedies has historically dissipated — but, at least on Wednesday, House and Senate leaders from both parties pledged to work together.
"I think we will enact a number of measures in a bipartisan way," said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield.
"I think this tragedy in Newtown has galvanized both Democrats and Republicans," said Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn. "And I think that the driving force behind it is the reaction of parents and average citizens. ... They want change. They realize that we do not need weapons of war in the hands of those who would harm our children and our communities."
"Is there going to be legislation that affects public safety that concerns guns and ammunition? I'm sure of it," said House Minority Leader Larry Cafero, R-Norwalk. "Is there going to be legislation related to Sandy Hook that deals with mental health, with school safety, with first-responders? I'm sure of it and, hopefully, we can do it in a bipartisan way."
"I know I went in thinking there are some clear, low-hanging fruit that we can act on right away" — such as banning high-capacity ammunition magazines. But, he added, "There are more complications to this issue than perhaps we realize," such as the idea that it does little good for Connecticut to ban such magazines if Congress doesn't follow suit with a national ban.
Both Sharkey and Cafero expressed interest in requiring purchasers of semi-automatic rifles with external magazines, such as the Bushmaster that Lanza used, to submit to the same permitting and registration procedures that now apply only to pistol owners.
However, the director of the 35,000-member Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen is already on record as saying that gun owners would probably resist an emotional overreaction by lawmakers — so it's unclear how much will happen.
A State Still Facing A Budget Deficit
In his speech, Malloy defended tax increases and a labor deal that helped balance the state budget in 2011. Frequently, he pointed to Congress' failure to lead in contrast to action taken by Connecticut in the past two years — and what his administration has already done to try to revive the state's economy.
"We cut more than we added in new revenue,'' he said. "And even after revenues came in short — as they did in 31 other states — we know today that our budget as enacted fixed more than 90 percent of the problem. Last month, Democrats and Republicans came together to make sure we closed that final gap without raising taxes."
"Anyone who tells you that the budget we passed two years ago didn't do its job, that it didn't make real change in how we approach our finances, is simply not telling the truth."
But Republicans said that synopsis was wrong.
"In every speech, I think the governor probably has a line that he wishes he could take back,'' said McKinney. "Last year, it was bashing our teachers. This year, it's calling us liars. It's hyperbole. It's not true, and I think he knows it's not true.''
McKinney said it was difficult to characterize a budget that has resulted in a projected deficit over two years of more than $2 billion as "something that worked."
"There are still some facts that he can't ignore. Our unemployment rate continues to go up. It's too high right now. That's a direct result of an economy in Connecticut where taxes are too high, businesses are over-regulated, and people don't want to live here and work here as much as they should."
Sen. Rob Kane, the ranking Senate Republican member of the budget-writing appropriations committee, said that the continuing deficits show that Malloy's tax increases did not solve all of the state's fiscal problems.
"It didn't work,'' Kane said of Malloy's tax plan. "I think he's incorrect. The budget didn't do its job. I sure hope the rhetoric ends and we all work together. ... It's obvious it didn't work.''
Malloy's chief of staff, Mark Ojakian, responded: "Sens. McKinney and Kane are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. The fact is we closed the largest per-capita deficit in the nation, and we did it with more reductions in spending than we did with new revenue. We have more work to do, but Connecticut — under the governor's leadership — is making the tough choices necessary to keep our budget balanced."
In comments after the speech, state GOP Chairman Jerry Labriola offered some balance to the promises of good will and cooperation that permeated the Capitol on Wednesday.
"As we know, saying so does not make it so, and Connecticut continues to have the worst debt in the nation, a higher unemployment rate than any of our Northeast neighbors and an economy that remains dead in the water,'' he said.