New year sees new legislation
Twenty-six Connecticut statutes take effect across the state on Jan. 1.
Most are piecemeal: modifications or expansions of existing legislation, including a tightening of standards for immigrant detainment and tweaks to public health statute.
Others will have a more tangible effect on Connecticut residents. Three in particular — an assault weapons ban and registry system, a 45-cent increase in the minimum wage and new fines for distracted drivers — make substantive strides on “high-profile issues,” according to State Rep. Roland Lemar, a Democratic representing portions of New Haven and East Haven.
State Rep. Gail Lavielle GRD ’81 took a different view of the 2013 legislative session. A Republican representing the 143rd district in far Southwest Connecticut, Lavielle said the General Assembly failed to take action to jumpstart Connecticut’s economy, the only state economy to post negative growth in 2012, according to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. She said attempts to reign in “state employee fringe benefits” were shot down by the deep blue legislature, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two to one.
ASSAULT WEAPONS BAN AND REGISTRY
With the new year come new provisions of the state’s gun violence prevention legislation, passed in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012.
The law requires owners of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines to register their firearms with the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection by Jan. 1, 2014. Come Wednesday, it will be illegal to possess unregistered assault weapons, an expansive category of military-style weapons defined by legislation passed in the wake of the murders at Newtown. The law set forth new bans on roughly 100 guns, including the assault-style AR-15 rifle Adam Lanza used to gun down children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The law permits continued possession, pending registration, but seeks to ensure no further procurement of such weapons. Registration enables the state to exercise oversight over the handling and trade of dangerous weapons, Lemar said.
“We’ll now know if a gun is stolen or misplaced or sold, because we’ll have records of owners,” he said.
Rather than confiscating assault weapons outright — an option rumored to once have been on the table according to Lemar — the registration system ensures responsible ownership, he said. Charges for undeclared firearm possession are strict, ranging from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class D felony.
The gun rights group Connecticut Citizens Defense League decried the firearm registration mandate as “unconstitutional” in a December statement, saying the state is attempting to turn gun owners into felons in the new year.
Lavielle said backlash to the registration requirement has resulted partly from poor communication on the part of the state. Gun owners have not been properly informed as to which weapons need to be declared, she said.
State statute also requires the Department of Emergency Services and Public Safety to maintain a registry, beginning Jan. 1, of people convicted of gun-related offenses.
The first in a two-part hike in the minimum wage will kick in on Jan. 1. The minimum required compensation will rise by 45 cents from $8.25 per hour to $8.70 beginning in 2014, and is set to increase to $9 beginning in 2015.
Connecticut is one of 13 states that will see a minimum wage hike in the new year. It will have the fourth highest statewide minimum, with Washington state leading the pack at $9.32 per hour.
Lemar said he will be pushing legislation next year to increase the minimum wage to $10 per hour by 2016, a move that would make the state a model for an idea President Barack Obama threw his weight behind in November: a nationwide minimum of $10 per hour.
“The idea that you can find a place to live in Connecticut and support your transportation and health care needs even on $9 per hour is laughable,” Lemar said.
Lavielle voted against the wage bump, which passed in the state House 89 to 53. She said the state’s failing economy is a poor context for increasing the minimum wage. The risk, she said, is that businesses will resort to firings just to maintain operations following the mandated increase in wages.
Drivers caught using cellphones or other electronic devices will face steeper fines in the new year. As of Jan. 1, a first offense of distracted driving will bring a penalty of $150, followed by $300 for a second offense and $500 for each subsequent offense. The fines represent an increase of roughly 20-25 percent from current penalties.
Distracted drivers will also suffer a point against their driver’s licenses, which often factor into car insurance rates offered by insurance companies based on a driver’s record.
Lemar and Lavielle concurred on the common-sense public safety rationale for the increase in driving fines.
WHAT’S TO COME
Lavielle said transportation is bound to emerge as a major issue in the 2014 legislative session, a shortened even-numbered-year session that sees only amendments to the biennial budget but no new appropriations.
“It’s something we’ll have to address because of all the accidents on Metro-North,” she said. “The contract that the [state] Department of Transportation has with Metro-North doesn’t allow Connecticut to hold a lot of sanctions over the head of the rail service to force improvements.”
She said the state should find the leverage to renegotiate terms in the contract, in addition to making independent safety improvements on the portions of the track that fall entirely under the state’s jurisdiction.
“When the trains are slow, that’s one thing,” Lavielle said. “When they’re killing people, it’s another story.”
There have been six Metro-North derailments in the past two years, including the Hudson line derailment that left four people dead and 60 others injured on Dec. 1.