Posted 6/18/12

Night Of The Living Dead (Bills)

Dark And Stormy
Photo by Steve Kotchko

It was a dark and stormy night last week—literally—when the General Assembly returned to the State Capitol for what is often a humdrum affair—a special session to approve so-called “budget implementers.”  These are bills designed to help carry out the budget.

This year the special session turned into a partisan set-to because the two “implementer” bills together ran more than 650 pages.  That’s a lot of implementation!

Sensing potential monkey business, on the last night of the regular legislative session back in May, House GOP leader Lawrence Cafero (R-Norwalk) asked his Democratic counterpart on the floor, House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden) if the June special session would be restricted to budget implementer language, and Sharkey assured him that would be the case.

However, when the two bills for consideration at the June 12 session appeared, Cafero said they were jam-packed with the elements of more than 100 pieces of legislation—many of which had “died” during the regular session.

In some past years, legislative leaders were very strict about what made it into the implementer bills because reviving bills that died during the regular session was a tricky political game.  If a top leader signed off on putting Rep. T’s bill into the package, he ran the risk of getting Representatives X, Y, Z all up in his face shouting:  “What about my bill?”

There was also the issue of split power at the State Capitol—a Republican governor (Rowland or Rell) and a Democrat-controlled legislature.  If the Dems put something objectionable into an implementer bill, they ran the real risk of having the entire bill vetoed.  Likewise if a GOP governor tried to stash something sneaky into an implementer, the Dems could refuse to take it up.

Now things are different.  There is a Democratic governor and a Democrat-controlled legislature.  Said Cafero:  “Why are they doing this?  Because they can!”

Sharkey rejected Cafero’s view that one-party control was responsible for the massive bills considered and approved in the special session.  He maintained Democratic leaders were cautious in deciding what elements to place in the implementer bills.  “Anything that seemed to be too much of a pet (bill) for any individual (interest)—those kinds of things we really said ‘no’ to,” he explained.

State Sen. Martin Looney (D-New Haven) said some items in the bills were included because they were deemed important and were not acted on during the regular session.  These were “elements of things that were considered time-sensitive and needed to be dealt with (or it would) prove problematic if we were to wait until the next regular session (which starts in January),” he said.

Republicans weren’t buying that argument.  They charged that the Democrats crammed everything into two bills preventing GOP lawmakers from voting for items they supported vs. items they opposed.  “We’ve lumped all of these concepts (into two bills) and it’s take it or leave it,” Senate Republican leader John McKinney (R-Fairfield) complained.  “How did (all) these sections get in here—I don’t know, and not a single Republican knows because we were not included in any meeting on any implementer,” he said.

On that point, Sharkey said Republicans have only themselves to blame.  “If you voted ‘no’ on the budget, and the revisions to the budget, how is it that you would sit at the table to discuss the (implementation) language on the budget you voted ‘no’ on?,” he asked.   The Democratic leader said if the GOP wanted two-party cooperation, and “we actually had some votes from the other side of the aisle (Republicans) on the budget, then that spirit of bipartisanship would have carried over into the implementers.”

Among the bills given a second chance and adopted via the implementers was a tax on so-called “roll-your-own” cigarette stores.  This little-discussed measure took on the spotlight of controversy when the FBI busted the finance director of Rep. Christopher Donovan’s (D-Meriden) congressional campaign.  The federal charge of hiding the true source of campaign contributions allegedly was linked to an attempt at influence-peddling by store operators who wanted the tax killed.  It was never voted on during the regular session.

Malloy budget chief Ben Barnes said the administration pushed for the bill because the administration believed the “roll-your-own” businesses exist to dodge the state tax on cigarettes.  “If you have a business in which you take rolling papers and tobacco and put together cigarettes, you are a manufacturer of cigarettes and should be treated (i-e taxed) equitably whether you are a small little shop or a large multi-national corporation that manufactures cigarettes,” Barnes explained.

In the end, the night of the living dead bills at the State Capitol turned out the way the majority Democrats wanted.  Both lengthy implementer bills passed including a host of items ranging from removal of a mandate that the state police force should have 1248 troopers, inclusion of a new job growth measure, a phase-in for municipal revaluation, the “roll-your-own” tax, even a $3.4 million loan for Bridgeport schools with the caveat that the city gets a big say on who Bridgeport hires as a school superintendent.

To get past the “promise” Sharkey made in public back in May that the special session would strictly focus on implementation languages, the admittedly broader bills were approved in what you might call a “special special session” voted on at the start of the day.  Nothing was acted on in the original special session—subject of the “promise." 

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