Malloy sets tone for Hartford agenda

State lawmakers convened in Hartford this week for a legislative session that began amid doubts about the state’s fiscal stability.

After recent budget estimates painted a bleaker-than-expected picture of Connecticut’s finances, Gov. Dannel Malloy opened the session Wednesday with a call for an “economic revival” in his annual State of the State address. Malloy pushed for increased funding for education reform efforts, changes to the state’s public benefits system and a balanced budget. In their newly begun session, legislators will likely also consider proposals regarding red-light enforcement cameras, the legalization of Sunday liquor sales, an increase in the state’s minimum wage and the abolition of capital punishment in the state.

Malloy’s biggest push was for wide-ranging education reforms, which he said were critical in light of Connecticut’s educational achievement gap, the largest in the nation. According to State Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, whose district includes New Haven, over 40 percent of public school children in Connecticut are in school districts plagued by an “extreme” achievement gap, particularly among low-income and minority students.

“Education reform is going to be the biggest policy initiative of the session — the governor laid out the urgent necessity for it,” Looney said. “The governor, I think, proposed significant steps that will lead towards reform, including attention being paid to the quality and rigor of teacher preparation programs.”

Malloy proposed using $128 million to target his education initiatives, including $50 million to need-based education grants to school districts, which will increase the money given to low-performing school districts such as New Haven. He also proposed expanding access to early childhood education and reforming the teacher tenure system to include an evaluation process currently under development by the state. Echoing DeStefano, Looney connected education reform with economic revival, since the majority of the jobs that will be created in the state’s “new economy” are ones that require more advanced skills and educational attainment, he said.

Malloy’s proposals come amid a backdrop of budget woes, despite having enacted the largest mix of spending cuts and tax increases in the state’s history last year. Two weeks ago, the state legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis revised the state’s projected $100 million budget surplus into a deficit of over $140 million, and the ratings agency Moody’s downgraded Connecticut’s bond rating, citing an unbalanced budget and the state’s lack of a “rainy day fund” in case of emergency.

In his budget address, Malloy pledged that when the fiscal year ends on June 30, the state will not have a budget deficit.

“Yes, we will have to cut some spending and forgo some things we wanted to do over the course of the next few months, but make no mistake about it: we will end this year in the black,” Malloy said.

Despite the currently projected deficit, Looney said the state’s finances are in a “much better place” than they were last year, when the state grappled with a $3.5 billion deficit.

Among the other issues Looney said the legislature will bring up this session is permitting red-light cameras, which Looney said would protect pedestrians and free up local police departments from traffic deployment, and allowing Sunday liquor sales within the state, which proponents say would prevent residents from traveling to nearby states to purchase liquor. Looney also said he would consider bringing death penalty repeal to a vote in the Senate if he could get enough senators to support a repeal bill, which Malloy has pledged to sign.

Other bills likely to see debate in the General Assembly include a voting reform package — which includes a bill permitting same-day voter registration — changes to the minimum wage, which state Rep. Roland Lemar of New Haven said would provide an economic boost of its own, and a bill legalizing medical marijuana, which Looney said has support from Malloy andlegislators.

The challenge, Looney said, will be to address this many issues in a “short” three-month legislative session.

“It’s a short session,” Looney said. “There’s an awful lot to do in three months.”

The state legislature will be in session until May 9.

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