Conn. Session Nears End with Key Bills Stalled

April 20, 2004

With a May 5 deadline approaching, Connecticut state lawmakers have yet to finish the major work of the session, such as prison reform, medical malpractice insurance changes, an ethics overhaul and revisions to the next fiscal year’s budget.

As of the beginning of April, Gov. John G. Rowland, a Republican, had just signed seven bills into law. Most have not yet reached his desk.

Meanwhile, it appears the Democrat-controlled General Assembly could find itself in summertime sessions if the House Select Committee of Inquiry recommends the full House impeach Rowland.

Committee leaders last week said they need more time to conduct their investigation, saying they hope to submit their report to House Speaker Moira Lyons, D-Stamford, sometime this summer.

Some lawmakers say they are hopeful there is still enough time for the legislature – known for its last-minute decision-making – to tackle key bills. For example, Rep. William Dyson, D-New Haven, a proponent of reducing the number of inmates in Connecticut prisons through a package of reforms, said his bill will make it to the floor of the House.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed on it,” he said.

Dyson planned to meet with Rowland’s office this week to work out any remaining kinks in the legislation, such as proposed reforms to the state’s parole system. But he believes the majority of the prison reform package will move forward.

“I think the bulk of it is a consensus,” he said. “There’s just a small piece they have some concerns about to talk about, and we’ll work out what our differences are.”

Marc Ryan, the governor’s budget director, said he believes an agreement on prison reform will come before the full legislature for a vote at the very end of the session.

Meanwhile, he said the legislature and the administration should be able to reach agreement on revisions to the state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, Ryan said. But he said that doesn’t mean it will happen before May 5.

“I think we can get it done by the 5th, but I don’t know if we will,” said Ryan, adding that negotiations with the legislative leaders are scheduled to begin early this week – a little later in the process than usual.

There remain some potentially sticky differences between Republicans and Democrats on the second half of the $27.5 billion two-year budget. The spending plan approved on a partisan vote in the Appropriations Committee is more than $70 million above the governor’s proposal. Ryan said he believe it is closer to $150 million more in spending.

Democrats want to roll back many of the health care cutbacks imposed last year for poor people using Medicaid programs, such as new premiums and co-payments for medical services. Democrats are also pushing to provide more money to local schools. All this comes in an election year, when legislators face the voters.

“It may be difficult to get people to coalesce until after you’ve gone through a period of open warfare,” Dyson said.

Ryan said the administration is willing to compromise, but the constitutional cap on spending prevents lawmakers from adding back money for many programs.

Democrats and Republicans agree on one thing: This year’s budget situation is much better than last year when a $1.2 billion deficit led to months of testy budget battles.

The current deficit, estimated anywhere from $30 million to $71.4 million, could turn into a surplus after state officials receive new revenue figures this week.

Meanwhile, a final agreement still needs to be worked out on reforming Connecticut’s medical malpractice insurance system, where rates are skyrocketing, forcing some physicians out of business. A working group has been meeting behind the scenes in recent weeks. There are suggestions of imposing two different caps – one for individual doctors and one for hospitals – on jury awards in malpractice cases.

Lawmakers have yet to complete any major ethics reforms bills considering the corruption scandal surrounding the Rowland administration. Bills such as stricter bans on gift-giving from state contractors and tougher penalties for ethical violators have been tinkered with in committees but have yet to reach the floor for a vote.

There are also discussions of passing legislation that would reconfigure Connecticut’s homeland security system. Top lawmakers have been meeting behind the scenes, trying to hash out a bill.

“I think the governor and leaders are really seriously contemplating a sort of remake,” Ryan said, referring to how homeland security funds are spent and which agencies have certain jurisdictions.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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