Between Yale students’ departure from New Haven in early May and the close of the Connecticut legislative session in early June, state lawmakers made substantial headway on several state issues.
With both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion under Democratic control, lawmakers passed and signed legislation to raise the minimum wage, allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the state, label genetically modified food and provide mental health care for youth. At the same time, lawmakers pushed through a $37.6 billion budget that will fund the state for the next two years.
“It seems hard to believe that more than five months have passed since this legislative session began,” Gov. Dannel Malloy said in a speech marking the end of the session in which he referred to December’s shooting in Newtown, Conn. “I think back to that cold day in January when we came together to begin our work, all of us still reeling from the worst tragedy we could imagine.”
The Legislature saved one of its most challenging tasks — crafting and passing a budget for the coming two years — for its final month in Hartford. Two days before the session’s end, Democrats pushed through the $37.6 billion budget with no Republican support and some defections from their own ranks. The budget, according to Malloy, reflected the “many tough choices and hard compromises” faced by the state, which continues to struggle in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis.
Legislators avoided major tax increases in order to pay for increases in funding for the University of Connecticut and maintain social services through one-time revenues from an array of sources. Chief among these were moving $6 billion in Medicaid funding out of the budget and allowing a computer-based gambling game in 600 restaurants and bars across the state.
“This budget shows that we’ve got our priorities straight, and we are determined to keep Connecticut moving forward,” Malloy said in a statement.
Before passing the budget, legislators took up raising the state’s minimum wage, which later came into focus at the national level with protests by fast food workers in cities across the country. Legislators and Malloy raised the minimum wage from $8.25 an hour currently to $8.70 in 2014 and $9.00 in 2015.
The state currently has the fourth-highest minimum wage in the country. Only Washington, which raises its minimum wage with inflation, requires employers to pay more than $9.00 per hour. As with the budget, no Republicans in either house supported the measure.
“Are we looking to reduce jobs today?” Rep. Richard Smith of New Fairfield, the ranking House Republican on the Labor Committee, asked The Connecticut Mirror, emphasizing that high costs for businesses, including minimum wage requirements, are the primary driver of the state’s high unemployment rate.
In addition to raising the minimum wage, lawmakers passed measures making Connecticut increasingly progressive in its handling of undocumented immigrants. One bill, which resulted directly from the detainment of New Haven resident Jose Maria Islas, will prevent police officers from reporting that they have arrested an undocumented immigrant. The second will allow immigrants in the state illegally to obtain a driver’s license.
“Having grown up in a community where police were not trusted, I understand that a community is less safe when it is unable to interact with the police,” state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield said in a statement on the bill inspired by Islas. “The protocols set forth in this bill make communities safer, are cost-effective and shift the responsibility for immigration back where it belongs with our federal government.”
The bill allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses was introduced by State Rep. for New Haven Juan Candelaria. Over the past several years, efforts by both the New Haven Board of Aldermen and Mayor John DeStefano Jr. have made the Elm City among the friendliest to undocumented immigrants in the nation.
In its final weeks in session, the Legislature also took on a host of other issues, in particular genetically modified foods. Foods classified as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs as they are commonly known, will now need to be labeled as such. Connecticut is the first state to require such a label.
Still seeking to enact reforms in the wake of December’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, lawmakers passed a measure requiring coordination between schools, mental health agencies and emergency psychiatric services, in addition to augmented mental health training for those providing medical care to children. Supporters argue that the measure could play a role in preventing future acts of mass violence.
“The heart of the matter, getting to young children who may have mental health and behavioral health issues, is so important because we know that we can change the tide of their lives,” said Rep. DebraLee Hovey, whose district includes Newtown.
This year, Gov. Malloy has signed 323 measures approved by the Legislature into law.