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Senate Approves Gambling Expansion As Session Ends Without Budget

Top state House Democratic leaders began the last day of the General Assembly's regular 2017 session by denying that their inability to pass a budget to solve

With just hours left in the legislative session, the Senate granted final legislative approval Wednesday night for an expansion of gambling that includes more off-track betting sites and possible sports betting in the future.

The final day's drama marked the end of a five-month legislative session that ended with unfinished business — with the biggest being the state's budget that has a projected deficit of nearly $5 billion over the next two years. The financial challenges will be tackled in the coming weeks with a goal of reaching a budget deal by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

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The last day also marked a capstone to a year of sharp disagreement on many of the major issues facing the legislature that ended without resolution — among them installing electronic tolls on highways, legalizing recreational marijuana, fixing crumbling foundations in eastern Connecticut, providing college financial assistance to so-called Dreamers, and increasing penalties on police officers who are guilty of misconduct. Those issues all failed without enough votes in the chambers, which had the closest margins in decades. The House Democrats maintain an advantage of 79 to 72, while the Senate is tied at 18-18.

With no budget finalized, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy declined for the second consecutive year to deliver the traditional post-midnight gubernatorial speech that marks the end of the legislative session.

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The gambling expansion was a crucial piece of an overall package to approve an East Windsor casino that would be built by the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to compete against a nearly $1 billion casino that is being constructed across the Massachusetts line in Springfield.

The measure was approved by 22 to 14 on a bipartisan basis with 16 Democrats joining with six Republicans in favor.

Known as the so-called gambling sweetener bill, the measure would increase the off-track sites to 24, up from the current 18. The House of Representatives approved the measure early Wednesday morning as part of a broader agreement to capture the necessary votes for the new East Windsor casino. It would also pave the way for sports betting if that is legalized by the federal government under President Donald Trump.

Sen. Paul Formica of Niantic and other proponents said passage was necessary because it is a jobs bill that would preserve employment at two casinos in southeastern Connecticut and create new ones north of Hartford.

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But Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican, spoke against the measure, even though the East Windsor casino would create 1,700 permanent casino jobs and more than 2,000 construction-related jobs near his hometown.

"All of this is trying to cobble together some collaboration to move the casino bill forward,'' Kissel said. "I am concerned about the vast expansion of gambling in Connecticut. ... Why do casinos make millions of dollars? Because our citizens are losing millions of dollars.''

The bill also calls for the creation of an entertainment advisory commission that would help to coordinate concerts and mixed martial arts matches at venues over 5,000 seats because legislators have complained that the XL Center in Hartford and Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport have lost numerous concerts over the years to the casinos. In addition, WNBA basketball games have largely been held at the 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena and not at the XL Center.

The legislative session comes to an end Wednesday after six months of daily activity at the Capitol. When it ends at midnight, however, lawmakers will not have adopted a new budget. A special session is expected later this month.

Republican Budget

Legislation temporarily slowed Wednesday afternoon in the Senate as Republicans unexpectedly announced that they would be debating their budget on short notice.

Although Republicans said they had an agreement with Democrats to limit the debate to two hours on the frantic, final day, Democrats responded that there was an apparent misunderstanding about debating the budget.

As the hourglass drained away toward the midnight deadline, Republicans started outlining their plans for the two-year, $40 billion budget with no tax increases or tolls. The bill would exempt all Social Security income from the state income tax, retroactive for the 2017 calendar year, for single filers earning below $75,000 and joint filers earning less than $100,000 per year. Unlike the governor's proposal, the bill does not reduce burial benefits for indigent families who cannot afford funerals.

"There's a lot going on in this building, but nothing that's more important than a budget,'' said Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano of North Haven. "That's our biggest obligation this session. ... No taxes. Structural changes that roll out to the future.''

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Sen. L. Scott Frantz, a Greenwich Republican, said the cost-cutting budget was needed to kick-start the economy and "shore up our crumbling foundation of our fiscal house.'' Massachusetts has gained back 300 percent of the jobs lost from the Great Recession, while Connecticut is still at 78 percent, he said. With few deductions for the state income tax, Connecticut's top income tax rate of 6.99 percent is equivalent to 9 percent — making the state uncompetitive with surrounding areas, he said.

Despite anything said recently, Frantz said the departure of the General Electric headquarters from Fairfield to Boston "was all about taxes.''

But Democrats said they were stunned by the proposed Republican debate on the final day.

"This surely is an outrage,'' said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk. "This is a complete shock and surprise to us. ... A sneak budget that puts this front and center on the last day of session is no way really to wrap up what has otherwise been a good and harmonious and bipartisan session that we've had so far.''

Sen. John Fonfara, a Hartford Democrat, questioned whether Republicans would cut aid to cities and towns that would lead to property tax increases on cars.

In compliance with an agreement to limit the debate on the final night, senators ended the debate after 10 p.m. without a vote on the merits. Instead, they voted on a motion on whether to end the debate, which passed when Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman broke an 18-18 tie.

In addition, the Senate voted 29-7 late Wednesday for a constitutional lock box to ensure that all money raised for transportation could not be diverted for other purposes. The sometimes-controversial measure can now be placed on the ballot for the general election in November 2018.

Proud Of Session

Earlier, House Democratic leaders began the last day of the regular 2017 session by denying that their inability to pass a budget to solve a deficit of more than $2 billion in the next fiscal year was in any way a failure on their part.

The House began the day by approving a resolution to call the General Assembly back into special session on the budget after its mandatory regular session adjournment deadline. The vote was 137-10, with only some Republicans voting against the measure.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter of Hartford told the House that the issue of hundreds of eastern Connecticut homes with crumbling foundations would be addressed during the special session.

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Lawmakers in both chambers faced a daunting final day, with major legislation still awaiting action including bills dealing with Tesla car sales, the Millstone nuclear power plant, and a proposed state constitutional amendment to protect state parks and forests, all of which stalled.

"I'm proud of this session," said House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, a Berlin Democrat. He said Democratic leaders "could have come up with a budget, twisted arms" and passed it, but said he and Ritter agreed "that's not the process that works."

Senator Len Fasano speaks with the press announcing the Republicans will be forcing a vote on their budget later tonight.
Senator Len Fasano speaks with the press announcing the Republicans will be forcing a vote on their budget later tonight. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

"I don't believe there was mismanagement," Aresimowicz said when asked about the repeated bills that were brought up and then withdrawn when it was clear House leaders didn't have the votes to pass the bills.

"Having a productive session doesn't always mean you keep a score at the end," Aresimowicz said. "It's pushing issues forward."

"The budget itself, yes, that is our job," he added. "It's a $2.7 billion problem. ... When we realized where we were, we could have retreated to our corners, come up with a budget, twisted arms, stayed here until midnight, kept people here through the night and come up with a budget that passed."

He added, "The majority leader and I have always said that's not a process that works.''

Several House Republicans disagreed with the speaker's estimate of the success of the regular session. "We came into session on Jan. 4 with the sole obligation ... to pass a budget," said Rep. Richard Smith, R-New Fairfield. He said the lack of a budget "is a failure of the General Assembly."

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano (L) speaks with Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney (second from right) outside the senate chambers after Senate Republicans announced they would force a vote on their budget and before Democrats announced their dismay at the opposing party's unexpected move. From left: Len Fasano, State Senator Bob Duff, Courtney Culling, State Senator Martin Looney and Vincent Mauro, Jr., chief of staff for Senate Democrats.
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano (L) speaks with Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney (second from right) outside the senate chambers after Senate Republicans announced they would force a vote on their budget and before Democrats announced their dismay at the opposing party's unexpected move. From left: Len Fasano, State Senator Bob Duff, Courtney Culling, State Senator Martin Looney and Vincent Mauro, Jr., chief of staff for Senate Democrats. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

Tech Schools

The Senate gave final legislative approval Wednesday to a bill that would make the scandal-plagued Connecticut Technical High School System into an independent executive-branch agency after a two-year phase-in. The vote was 34-1, with Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, against it, and Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, absent. The House approved the bill 96-50 Saturday. Now it goes to the governor.

The executive director would be the boss of the system superintendent, a post that Nivea Torres quit April 24 while under investigation for signing contracts since 2014 that paid $4.5 million in taxpayer funds to a marketing firm. Its promotional services included writing tweets for her Twitter account "to position Dr. Torres as an inspirational, next-generation education thought-leader."

The bill's supporters said the recent scandal reflected "inadequate oversight" which would improve with the executive director keeping tabs on the superintendent. "There is this extra layer of oversight," said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford. "Given our recent history, in particular, it seems to make sense to have that added layer."

Price-Gouging

A bill aimed at protecting consumers from alleged "secret price gouging" by pharmacy benefit managers won approval 127-22 in the House Wednesday afternoon. The bill previously passed the Senate, but will need to be approved by that chamber again because House lawmakers attached an amendment to the bill.

Advocates of the measure said it is intended to "provide full disclosure" to consumers about costs of prescription drugs and generic alternatives. The bill bans so-called "gag clauses" in pharmaceutical contracts that prohibit pharmacists from sharing price information on lower-cost alternative drugs with consumers.

Co-payments on some health insurance plans can in some cases cost consumers far more than simply paying cash for alternative generic drugs, according to lawmakers supporting the bill.

A controversy erupted around the legislation when Senate leaders warned Insurance Commissioner Katharine Wade to stop proposing changes that both Democratic and Republican lawmakers believed would weaken the bill. Wade, a former employee of Cigna whose husband still works for that health insurance giant, denied she was attempting to water down the bill's protections for consumers.

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said a House amendment added to the bill will also require that hospital patients be clearly informed about their medical bill payment responsibilities before leaving the hospital.

Criminal Justice

A bill that places new limits on the use of solitary confinement in Connecticut prisons is headed to Malloy for consideration following final passage in the House Wednesday. The measure would provide greater transparency around the use of solitary confinement and prevent the Department of Correction from placing prisoners under 18 in the most punitive level of solitary confinement.

In addition, the Senate early Wednesday approved a bill that overhauls the bail system. The measure, which cleared the chamber 29 to 7 after passing the House of Representatives last week, was one of Malloy's top priorities for the session.

This year's version of the bill would essentially ban cash bail for most misdemeanors, except in cases involving domestic violence. It would also require courts to hold a bail review hearing within 14 days of arraignment, instead of 30 as allowed by current law. The bill also requires the governor's budget office to conduct a study on creating a program that would provide assistance to poor defendants so they could get out of jail.

Courant staff writer Jon Lender contributed to this story.

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