Two major bills, one that heads off a threatened union strike Monday by workers who care for the developmentally disabled and another to provide assistance to Connecticut homeowners with crumbling concrete foundations were approved during a rare Saturday session of the General Assembly.
The Senate also voted on a bipartisan basis to scale back the Hartford bailout to a five-year deal in which money to the city eventually could be cut under certain circumstances — unless other funds are restored by the legislature.
During a marathon day that ended near 8:30 p.m., lawmakers also approved a bill to make Connecticut the 11th state to consider overturning the Electoral College by joining an interstate compact that would ensure the state's electoral votes go to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote.
And the House voted to require school bus drivers to receive training so they can assist students who are suffering from life-threatening food allergies. The bus companies opposed the bill, saying the part-time drivers are not paramedics and do not have sufficient training to be involved in critical medical emergencies.
With multiple bills passed on key issues, legislators said that Saturday ranked among the most productive single days of the entire legislative session this year.
The Senate moved to avert a planned strike Monday when it gave final legislative approval to a measure raising the wages of 19,000 workers who care for people with intellectual disabilities at private group homes and day programs across the state. The bill goes to Gov. Dannel Malloy.
Senators said they acted because the workers have not had a raise during the past 12 years while performing physically and emotionally draining jobs.
The measure was approved 29-4 Saturday with three Republican Senators absent. The House had previously approved it 88-62, with nine Republicans voting in favor.
The bill does not involve state employees, but private employees who perform services on behalf of the state and are often paid by non-profit agencies.
"A strike is not a win-win situation,'' said Sen. Ed Gomes, a Bridgeport Democrat. "It harms people. This is a segment of people who cannot help themselves. With a strike, you bring in people who are not qualified to take care of these people.''
A longtime union official who is now retired, Gomes said, "I've been in quite a few strikes over the years.''
The legislation passed Saturday similar to one proposed by Ben Barnes, the governor's top budget adviser. The agreement, if signed by the governor, would raise the wage for the workers to at least $14.75 per hour and provide a one-time, 5 percent raise for workers now earning more than $14.75 but less than $30 per hour. Those increases would start on Jan. 1.
Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven said the lowest-wage workers need an increase to at least $14.75 per hour. For those above that level, a Republican amendment called for a 1 percent cost-of-living increase every year over the span of five years, rather than a one-time increase of 5 percent in one year. That move would spread out the costs further.
"There's no money now to pay for this,'' Fasano said.
But Senate majority leader Bob Duff, a Norwalk Democrat, strongly opposed that amendment, which Democrats said would abrogate a negotiated agreement with the District 1199 union.
"A vote for this amendment means a vote for a strike, which will cost us $1 million a day, which is not reimbursable back to the state of Connecticut,'' Duff said Saturday on the Senate floor. "If this amendment passes, we have a strike. If we vote it down, we do not have a strike. We have a decision in front of us, today, right now, if we want to spend $1 million a day. We have the power, right now, to not spend $1 million a day on something we can avoid ourselves.''
The Republican amendment failed, 18-14, with four members absent.
According to an analysis by the non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, the legislation comes with an estimated annual cost of roughly $43 million, but because the costs are eligible for a 50 percent Medicaid reimbursement, the cost to the state would be $21.5 million.
The cost for the first year would be half of that because the raises would not begin until halfway into the 2019 fiscal year, on Jan. 1.
About 2,500 unionized workers were planning to strike on Monday if an agreement on wage increases was not passed by the legislature. The workers, who serve about 12,000 individuals with developmental disabilities, had already postponed an earlier strike after the governor asked for an extension to pass the agreement.
Some legislators and the union said that the strike would cost the state an estimated $1 million per day.
"No one wants to see that,'' said Sen. Paul Formica, the Republican co-chairman of the budget-writing committee.
Sen. Cathy Osten, the Democratic co-chairman of the budget committee, said that the strike would be too costly for the state.
The workers are employed by state contractors, who are private and often non-profit organizations that obtain a large portion, if not all, of their funding from the state and federal government. Overall, 86 agencies provide services, and only 17 are unionized. The contractors receive their payments through the Department of Developmental Services and the Department of Social Services.
In a bipartisan initiative, lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a bill that would collect a $12 surcharge on each homeowner's insurance policy after July 1, 2019, for a "Healthy Home Fund" that would provide aid to homeowners with crumbling foundations. The measure would collect about $8.75 million a year for 12 years, according to a nonpartisan fiscal note by the office of Fiscal Analysis.
The state House approved the measure 97-42, with 11 lawmakers absent, and it now heads to the Senate with just three working days remaining in the legislative session.
Since the issue of failing foundations was detected in north central Connecticut, Malloy has estimated that as many as 34,000 homes in 36 towns might be affected. Replacing a home's foundation can cost $150,000 to $250,000.
In the midst of an already emotional debate, Rep. Kelly Juleson-Scopino, D-Manchester, said she lives in a home affected by a crumbling foundation.
"It was meant to be a home filled with hopes and dreams … and now that home is broken, quite literally," Juleson-Scopino said. She purchased her home in 2012 for about $300,000, and it is now worth $86,000, she said.
"What is the American dream? Home ownership,"said Rep. Tom Delnicki, a South Windsor Republican. "Here we have the American dream crumbling beneath these people. …Their American dream is gone."
The legislation had little opposition during the debate, although Rep. Rob Sampson, a Republican from Wolcott, called it an "essentially hidden tax" he could not support.
Rep. Catherine Abercrombie, D-Meriden, said the issue did not affect her community and probably would not, but even so, she would support the measure.
""We are a small state, we should be supporting each other," Abercrombie said. "If this was happening in your community, wouldn't you want the state to help you?"
The state is setting up a $100 million fund for repairs, financed though bonding over five years. Last year, the bipartisan biennium budget passed approved the first $40 million over two years and created a non-for-profit captive insurance company to administer the Crumbling Foundations Assistance Fund.
Eighty-five percent of the money collected through the $12 surcharge proposed by lawmakers Saturday will be transferred to the crumbling foundations fund while the remaining 15 percent would be used to assist homeowners whose homes are sinking in New Haven and others dealing with lead and radon abatement.
Rep. Jeff Currey, an East Hartford Democrat who pushed for the legislation, said the measure approved by the House on Saturday will make sure "there's a sustainable funding stream … so that we're able to provide as much relief as possible, so that we're able to provide as much relief as possible so that homeowners aren't essentially paying for their house twice."
The insurance companies, Currey said, have not expressed opposition to the latest initiative.
Hartford Bailout Revised
The Senate voted, 28-6 to revise the decades-long Hartford bailout to a five-year deal in which money could be cut to the city after that time frame under certain circumstances — unless the deal is extended by the legislature.
The legislature's budget and tax committees would need to vote on any future deal, in advance, with a series of financial tripwires if any community was seeking an agreement similar to the one that was approved last year for Hartford.
Sen. John Fonfara, a Hartford Democrat, said the city "would not regain some stability fiscally'' without a longer-term plan beyond two years. Fonfara offered an amendment to give Hartford "the ability to right itself,'' which said state money eventually could be cut to the city after five years.
"We all want Hartford to get out of this,'' said Fasano. "I think there were bad financial decisions made before, but that's irrelevant. … It would be an awful headline that the capital city of the state of Connecticut goes bankrupt.''
Fasano added, "Although I liked the two-year deal, there's a five-year deal on the table with tripwires. I'll take that. … If we don't do this, we're stuck with a 30-year deal. … It is a chance. It is a risk. No doubt about it.''
Some Republicans rejected the idea of the five-year bailout, saying they originally thought they were voting last year for a two-year deal.
"Over the next five years, our budgets remain very tough and very tight, and if dramatic reductions were to be fully implemented after five years, it's unlikely that Hartford would be able to sustain those cuts,'' Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said Saturday night. "That said, I fully understand and respect legislators' desire to revisit the agreement after five years, and my commitment is that we will continue to work hard to earn the confidence of our the legislature and the state as a whole as we move our Capital City in the right direction.''
The Senate also narrowly rejected a Republican amendment that would have limited the Hartford deal to two years.
Republicans and Democrats said they believed it was a major misunderstanding that Hartford would receive a long-term bailout for more than $500 million. The Republican amendment would reduce state aid to Hartford by the amount of debt repayments that the city received from the state. Lawmakers said they thought they were voting for a two-year bailout for Hartford and were stunned that the city and the Malloy administration interpreted the language as a long-term deal.
"Many of us felt in the last budget compromise that we may have been misled'' about the money going to Hartford, said Sen. Toni Boucher, a Wilton Republican.
Allergies on School Buses
In the House, lawmakers debated whether school bus drivers should be required for the first time to have training to help students with life-threatening food allergies and ultimately passed the measure 125-10, with 15 members absent.
The drivers would be asked to use EpiPens to assist students who are suffering from severe allergic reactions.
But lobbyists for the bus companies argued that the drivers are not paramedics and did not have the proper medical training to help the students.
Lawmakers said the drivers would receive the proper training so they could administer epinephrine and then call 911.
"Since most training curriculum is available online, it is assumed most districts will distribute the training electronically, to the degree possible, resulting in no additional cost to the district,'' said an analysis by the legislature's fiscal office. "Lastly, the amendment provides immunity from civil liability to bus drivers who provide an emergency administration of epinephrine by a cartridge injector to certain students.''
Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, a Fairfield Democrat, said, "This bill is designed to save students' lives.''
National Popular Vote
The Senate also granted final legislative approval Saturday to a bill allowing Connecticut to join an interstate compact that would ensure the state's electoral votes go to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote, provided enough other states join the agreement. Opponents have sharply questioned the measure, saying it essentially overturns the national Electoral College system and a long-running tradition in the United States.
The state Senate voted 21-14 on a bipartisan basis. The House had approved the measure by a narrow 77-73 vote that came in mostly along party lines.
"In every other office in our country, the popular vote wins,'' Duff said. "Some people may say: 'Why should I vote? The state is going to go blue. Or the state is going to go red.' ''
Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney of New Haven said the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the notion of one person, one vote since the 1960s and that the Electoral College has become an outlier and an anachronism.
But Fasano, who voted against the bill, said, "This may lead to a lawsuit that I think can be brought by any voter.''
The issue has been highly controversial after close elections in which the eventual president, including Republicans Donald Trump and George W. Bush, were elected under the Electoral College without winning the national popular vote.
The 10 states that have signed on to the interstate compact — including neighboring states Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island — have 165 electoral votes. The compact would not take effect until enough states join and cumulatively possess 270 electoral college votes, a majority of the total. Republicans said that many of the states that have favored the idea so far are "blue'' or Democratic-leaning states.