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PSN on May 15, 2008 - 10:18am
Revenue projections which tumbled from an over $200 million surplus to a $60 million plus dollar deficit quickly changed the tone of Connecticut’s short session and forced the Governor and legislative leaders to abandon promises of increased spending and tax refunds. In the end, the Legislature failed for the first time ever to pass a budget, leaving last year’s two-year spending plan in place. Mayors and non-profit leaders decried the austere plan, which along with the loss of real estate transfer taxes that sunset in June, will spell serious budget woes for cities and towns, many of whom face a foreclosure crisis as well.
Budget woes that prevented needed funding for a host of measures, combined with continued failure to act on other important issues, including ethics reform legislation that has been debated now for five years, lead to a generally pessimistic assessment of the session’s accomplishments. However, the legislature did pass a couple pieces of landmark legislation such as a path-breaking health insurance pooling bill and ambitious limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
Healthcare Insurance Pooling: At the very end of the session, the Connecticut Senate joined the House and overwhelmingly adopted HB 5536, the Connecticut Healthcare Partnership. This groundbreaking legislation will open up the state employee health plan to municipalities, small businesses and non-profits. Pooling small groups with the state employee plan, which has more than 200,000 members, will generate significant bargaining power and enable small employers and municipalities to negotiate better insurance rates. As we've written previously, while more than 20 states allow similar pooling of state and municipal workers, Connecticut would be the first to allow small businesses to join the plan at such a large scale.
As we wrote in a op-ed published by the Connecticut Post, this pooling of public and private sector employers and employees will help Connecticut, which is known as the insurance capitol of the world, to wring more affordable rates and better quality insurance coverage from the insurance industry. Advocates in Connecticut are now putting pressure on Governor Jodi Rell to sign the bill, although she has already indicated plans to veto this forward-thinking legislation.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions: Both chambers have passed HB 5600, which will require deep and mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Under the bill, greenhouse gases would be cut by 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below 2001 levels by 2050. These cuts are in line with estimates of what is required to stop global warming. The bill also directs the Connecticut Dept. of Transportation to study expanding high-speed rail, light rail, and freight rail within the state.
Connecticut now joins California, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Washington as the fifth state to adopt mandatory limits on global warming pollution. Given the lack of action on the climate crisis on the federal level, it is essential that other states follow their lead and pass mandatory cuts. The Governor is expected to sign the legislation.
Other Important Reforms
Mortgage Reform and Foreclosure Prevention: Responding to the growing foreclosure crisis in the state, the legislature passed HB 5577 which the Governor has pledged to sign. The bill will puts the state, in the words of Sen. Bob Duff, “on the path to defining responsible lending,”? by defining subprime loans, establishing consumer protections for borrowers, implementing a mediation program to workout delinquent loans and prevent foreclosures, and making the state a lender of last resort when subprime borrowers would otherwise lose their homes without refinancing. The state is investing $141 million in the program, $64 million of which is for refinancing subprime mortgages.
Toxic Toys Banned: The legislature passed HB 5650, which bans the sale of toys containing lead or asbestos. While not as comprehensive as legislation promoted by Progressive States Network and the Coalition for a Safe and Health Connecticut that would have also banned phthalates and bisphenol A, the bill is an important step in protecting the states children from poisonous toys. The bill also includes Connecticut in a multi-state clearinghouse that facilitates the sharing of state testing information on toxic chemicals which will help reduce the burden on states in collecting data and testing toys.
Environmental Justice: Due largely to the efforts of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice, a bill has passed the legislature that will provide economic development funds to environmentally distressed communities. These communities are ones that have 3 or more polluting facilities within a one mile radius. 70 communities in the state fit this definition.
- Minimum Wage: The legislature passed an 60 cent increase in the minimum wage to be phased in over the next 18 months. At the beginning of 2010 the minimum wage would stand at $8.25, yet the governor has expressed hesitation in signing the bill.
Missed Opportunities and Unfinished Business: The legislature failed to renew the real estate conveyance tax, critical for funding local governments, although both the Governor and legislative leaders now say they will bring the legislature back for a special session to prevent the loss of revenue for municipalities. The legislature may also return for a special session to enact ethics reforms they failed to deal with.
As with last year, the Senate approved a paid sick days bill, while the House failed to act before time ran out on the session. SB 217 would have provided up to 52 hours of paid sick leave per year for employees working at businesses with a total of at least 50 employees. The legislature also failed to act on HB 5723, which would have included gender identity and expression within state civil rights protections.
In spite of a short session and the rapidly deteriorating budget picture, Connecticut lawmakers were able to pass some significant reforms. However, important legislation with strong support didn’t make it all the way to final passage. Hopefully a special session will allow a chance to complete this unfinished business.