Connecticut lawmakers closed out a legislative session Wednesday dominated by the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that put the state in the middle of a heated, national debate over gun control and brought veteran legislators to tears after meeting with the victims' mourning families.
Well before the midnight adjournment was reached, lawmakers had passed their weightiest issues of the past five months and nearly all of them involved the Newtown shooting.
"Every one of us would give anything to go back to Dec. 14 and prevent what happened that day. But we can't," Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told a joint session of the General Assembly. "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."
Lawmakers began the session less than a month after the attack in Newtown that left 20 first-graders and six educators dead by forming a bipartisan legislative task force to address the tragedy. The group ultimately produced a wide-ranging bill that provided for stricter gun laws, including a ban on large-capacity magazines and expanded background checks.
They spent the early morning hours Wednesday passing a bill that prevents the public release of crime scene photos from Sandy Hook and other homicides, addressing a concern raised by the Newtown families who've become familiar faces at the state Capitol.
"It's ironic that's how we began and ended our session, but perhaps appropriate," said Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn. "And I think in both instances, the outcome required a tremendous amount of conversation, negotiation, bipartisan cooperation. But also in the end, the result was superior and about as good as we could have hoped for."
Mark Ojakian, chief of staff for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said the shooting changed the Democratic administration's objectives for the new session. It quickly became about "trying to help Connecticut heal" and pursuing an anti-gun violence agenda. After that, other Newtown-related issues cropped up, such as creating a fund to help cover the mental health costs of police and other workers directly affected by the shooting, preventing the release of crime scene photos, and creating the new Connecticut Coordinated Assistance and Recovery Endowment, a foundation that will accept charitable donations in the immediate aftermath of an emergency and distribute them as soon as possible.
"There's been a common thread throughout the session, which has been Newtown, in trying to not only help the families through it, but help the state through it," said Ojakian, adding how the experience personally affected him. He said: "You can't have been a part of this since Dec. 14 and not have it had changed you."
During Wednesday's early morning vote on the crime scene photos legislation, a somber Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, whose district includes Newtown, thanked lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, for their efforts this session to help the Newtown families. Referring to his fellow Senate Republicans, he said, "They have essentially said, 'John, we want to do whatever we can to help you to help them.'"
McKinney was part of the bipartisan team that helped to pass the package of stricter gun control laws which received national attention, prompting hundreds of gun rights advocates and gun control advocates to begin staging rallies and packing hearings at the state Capitol. While lawmakers in Connecticut hoped their bipartisan agreement would encourage cooperation in Washington, D.C., on a gun bill, the U.S. Senate failed to pass legislation requiring expanded background checks and other measures.
Despite the dominance of Newtown, lawmakers passed a new, two-year, $44 billion budget on time. The plan becomes $37.6 billion after $6.4 billion in federal Medicaid reimbursements are shifted out from the under the state's constitutional spending cap. In the final hours on Wednesday, the House and Senate passed a bill that's more than 500 pages long and spells out details of the budget and programs ranging from mixed martial arts to zoning regulations for hospices. The House passed it in less than five minutes. It took the Senate slightly longer.
The budget marked an instance when the legislature's spirit of bipartisanship after the Sandy Hook shooting disappeared. Majority Democrats negotiated the budget alone with Malloy, defending their plan to shift the Medicaid funds off-budget as a way to make sure federal funds don't squeeze out room to spend money on education and other key areas. But Republicans said the change violated the intention of the spending cap, passed by the voters following passage of the personal income tax in 1991.
"The spending plan adopted by the Democrats will unfortunately perpetuate economic stagnation in Connecticut," said State Republican Chairman Jerry Labriola, who called it "a toxic cocktail of over-spending, over-borrowing and new taxes," referring a July 1 increase in the gross receipts tax on gasoline.
The budget does not include any large-scale tax increases to cover a projected deficit of $1.5 billion in the first year and $1.35 billion in the second. But Republicans criticized the spending plan for extending the 20 percent corporate surcharge and other taxes that were set to expire and for raising fees such as on driver's licenses.
The budget legislation also calls on the Connecticut Lottery Corporation to implement Keno, a game of chance that's based on the drawing of numbers. The game will likely be located in bars and restaurants.
Other highlights of the session included new licensing for tattoo technicians, allowing immigrants to obtain driver's licenses no matter their legal status, and requiring school safety officers to be either current or retired police officers.
An effort to allow physicians to help patients end their own lives made it to a public hearing, but a committee vote was not taken. Proponents said they planned to revisit the issue.
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