There’s three-and-a-half weeks left in the legislative session and the General Assembly has already had its first overnight debate, centering on a proposal to raise the minimum wage from $10.10 to $15 an hour. The measure passed after 14 hours. The Courant’s Christopher Keating reported sports betting and marijuana legislation were in trouble last month, having gotten bogged down in the pesky details. Now Gov. Ned Lamont is saying sports betting won’t happen this session, and proponents of legal marijuana say they are still 10 votes short to pass the measure in the House. We’re also still waiting on more details on toll legislation, and Democrats and Lamont need to work out a budget deal. Reminder: This is all supposed to get done by June 5.
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The big stories
Marathon minimum wage debate: In one of the longest General Assembly debates in recent memory, the House spent about 14 hours, beginning at 10 p.m. Wednesday and wrapping up shortly after noon on Thursday, discussing a bill to raise the state’s $10.10 an hour minimum wage to $15. The final vote, 82-59 in favor, was largely along party lines, with all Republicans opposed and all but two Democrats in support. Proponents said Connecticut needed to bring its minimum wage in line with neighboring states like Massachusetts and New York that have already committed to $15 an hour. They also said many of the more than 330,000 people in the state who earn the minimum wage are not high school kids but rather older workers who are supporting families. Opponents said a higher minimum wage would lead to job cuts and reductions in hours for workers, stifling the state’s already slow economic growth. The $15 minimum wage would begin on Oct. 15, 2023, with annual increases between now and then.
Lamont folds on sports betting: The odds for sports betting in Connecticut just got a lot worse. Lamont told reporters Wednesday he didn’t believe legislation adopting sports betting would be enacted before the General Assembly adjourns in the first week of June. A major issue is who the operators in the new industry would be. The tribes that run Connecticut’s two casinos, the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans, say they should have the exclusive rights for sports betting based on decades-old gambling agreements with the state. An opinion from the state attorney general last year disagreed. Many lawmakers want to open sports betting to multiple operators to maximize the revenue the state will receive. Regardless of when sports betting begins, legislators would be wise to look at what’s happening in neighboring Rhode Island, where the state recently cut in half the amount of money it expects to bring in this year from sports betting.
Both sides dig in on tolls: 100,000 signatures and $900,000. Those impressive figures were part of the continuing debate over electronic highway tolls last week. A grassroots anti-toll group delivered the signatures to Lamont’s office Thursday, calling on the Democratic governor to drop his plan for tolls on I-84, I-91, I-95 and Route 15. The $900,000 is what a group backed by Connecticut’s road-building industry has committed to spend on a public relations campaign in favor of tolls, including television and radio ads and mailers sent to homes. Lamont says tolls will raise $800 million a year, much-needed revenue to repair the state’s aging roads and bridges. And 40 percent of that money will come from out-of-state drivers, he argues. Opponents say tolls will only increase the cost of living in Connecticut and force businesses and taxpayers to leave. Republicans in the legislature are pitching a plan called Prioritize Progress that relies on state borrowing to fund the repairs.
Five things you may have missed
Early voting slowed down: Early voting may be coming to Connecticut, but it won’t be for at least five more years. The push for early voting suffered a setback late Wednesday when the state Senate approved a constitutional amendment to allow voting before Election Day but not by the three-fourths margin needed to put the question to voters in 2020. The House had passed the bill by the requisite margin, but the 23-13 vote in the Senate, with only one Republican in favor, means the legislature will have to pass early voting legislation again in 2021 to put the question on the 2022 ballot. Advocates had been hoping to have voters weigh in next year during a high turnout presidential election when they believed the amendment was more likely to be approved. If early voting is approved in 2022, it would likely be in place by the 2024 election. Amending Connecticut’s constitution, a requirement for early voting, is a cumbersome process. Voters rejected an early voting amendment in 2014 that proponents said was poorly worded.
Gun bills advance: As a general rule, the General Assembly used to tackle one gun bill per session, but over the course of two days, the House passed three bills to strengthen the state’s gun laws. Each passed by a comfortable margin, but there was strong bipartisan support for what has been dubbed “Ethan’s Law,” a strengthening of gun storage regulations that was approved by a 127-16 vote. Republicans who generally oppose stricter gun laws backed the measure, named for Ethan Song, a Guilford teen who accidentally shot and killed himself with a gun belonging to a friend’s father in January 2018. Song’s parents advocated strongly for the measure and were at the Capitol Tuesday night when it passed. The other two gun bills were legislation to ban so-called ghost guns, assembled from parts purchased online and lacking serial numbers, and a bill that would require gun owners to secure their handguns when they leave them in their vehicles by placing them in a locked trunk, locked glove box or gun safe.
Could free college save money?: The idea on its face seems unlikely: Could free community college actually save Connecticut money? But proponents are pointing to a recent report from the legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal office that predicts the increase in tuition-free college would bring would make it a net positive for the state’s bottom line. Enrollment could surge anywhere from 10 percent to 45 percent, increasing revenue from federal grants and student fees at the community colleges. If a 45 percent increase in enrollment is reached, the program would cost $8.9 million in 2022 but bring in an estimated $10.7 million. In neighboring Rhode Island, a free community college program boosted enrollment by 43 percent in the first year, according to Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield and co-chair of the legislature’s higher education committee. “A surge in enrollment is exactly what our colleges need, because declining enrollment has been a growing problem in recent years and is contributing to the system’s fiscal distress,” he said.
Does Connecticut need a new state slogan?: The state is ditching its “Still Revolutionary” slogan, although a recent report showed tourism in Connecticut is holding its own despite the tagline, which has been panned by some in the industry. Lamont suggested a contest to come up with a new slogan. The Courant asked readers for ideas, and they included “The Gateway to New England,” “America’s Rising Star,” a play on a former Hartford tagline, and self-deprecating entries like “Our Pizza is Almost Worth the Misery” and “The bronze medal of the Tri-State.” The “Still Revolutionary” motto was part of a campaign launched in 2012 under then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Connecticut has had a number of different slogans since 1980, according to Courant archives, but none of them seem to have stuck. Some prior ones include “Better Yet Connecticut,” “See America in Connecticut,” “Connecticut, We’re Full of Surprises” and “‘Connect’ In Connecticut.” Those in the industry say state spending on tourism is more important than any slogan.
Hemp farming OK’d: The General Assembly is notorious for moving slowly and waiting until the waning days of the session to pass important bills. But they clearly heard the calls of prospective hemp farmers in Connecticut, who urged them to pass enabling legislation to start growing the crop sooner rather than later, so they could get their seeds in the ground when the planting season begins in June. The House gave unanimous approval to a hemp bill Wednesday after little debate (the Senate had already unanimously passed it). Lamont signed the bill Thursday. That’s good news for the 200 or so Connecticut farmers who have expressed interest in growing hemp. The crop, a strain of Cannabis that does not induce psychoactive effects, was made legal to grow at the federal level as part of last year’s farm bill. The oil from hemp plants is used to treat inflammation, pain and anxiety. The crop is also used as a textile. The Connecticut Farm Bureau Association has estimated that an acre of hemp could generate 500 to 1,500 pounds of dried flowers and reap profits of $37,500 to $150,000.
Odds and ends
Democrat Antonio Felipe won a special election Tuesday in the 130th House District in Bridgeport. Felipe, 23, will succeed Rep. Ezequiel Santiago, who died suddenly in March. … Republican Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire couldn’t help but take a shot at Connecticut’s lackluster economic growth when appearing on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” Wednesday. “I’d fix Connecticut in 20 minutes,” if I were governor there, he asserted. He bragged of poaching businesses from Connecticut and New York “all the time.” A spokeswoman for Lamont noted that Connecticut has 16 Fortune 500 companies while New Hampshire has none. She invited Sununu to come meet with the new governor. ... As Connecticut considers legal marijuana sales, state Attorney General William Tong joined with more than three dozen other attorneys general urging Congress to adopt legislation that would make it easier for cannabis-related businesses (both medical and recreational) to gain access to federally chartered banks. “Denying licensed medical marijuana-related businesses access to the federal banking system creates unnecessary vulnerability and safety risks,” Tong, a Democrat, said. ... Republican legislators are continuing their campaign for a do-over election in the 120th House District, where 75 voters received the wrong ballots. Democrat Phil Young won the race by just 13 votes. The GOP disputed the results and called for a new election, but Democrats who control the House seated Young over their objections. Rep. Vin Candelora, R-North Branford, has tried, unsuccessfully, to attach amendments to other voting bills requiring a revote in the Stratford district, even suggesting limiting it just to the polling place where the wrong ballots were received. “To me, this is a question of the integrity of our institution,” Candelora told Hearst Connecticut Media’s Dan Haar.