The school shootings in Newtown dominated the beginning of the 2013 legislative session. Lawmakers passed a bipartisan gun violence prevention bill, the toughest in the nation. The legislation further restricts the use of assault weapons and imposes more background checks and restrictions on the sale of high-capacity magazine clips. In addition, both branches of the General Assembly adopted a freedom of information bill in response to the requests of parents of the victims of the Newtown shootings.
The same bipartisan spirit of cooperation was not in evidence for the remainder of the session, as Gov. Dannel Malloy’s proposed budget met with strong opposition from Republican lawmakers and some Democrats who vigorously opposed any spending increases citing the state’s sputtering economic recovery.
In early June, lawmakers signed off on a $44 billion two-year spending plan. FY 2014, began on July 1, with a $21.5 billion budget. The budget relies in part on revenues from a 4-cent hike in the state’s gas tax. The tax on diesel fuel will also increase by 3.5 cents. Republican lawmakers asked Connecticut drivers to petition the governor and Democratic lawmakers to reverse the increases to no avail.
The new spending plan calls for:
- $2 billion in bonded projects
- $50 million for a new elementary school in Newtown
- $1 million for a statewide firearms tracking task force
- $3 billion to cities and towns with education aid increasing by 2% over the next two years
- a $10 million increase in each year of the biennium for community health centers in anticipation of thousands of newcomers who will be eligible for coverage under the Affordable Health Care Act. (These centers currently serve the uninsured and those on Medicaid.)
- $50,000 for launching a plan to promote bioscience industries.
- Approved labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). (For the legislation to take effect, one state that borders Connecticut must pass a similar law. Connecticut was the first state to pass such a law.)
- Launched Keno, agreeing to transfer $2.3 million from lottery proceeds to treatment programs for chronic gamblers.
- Approved pay raises for judges—the first such raise in seven years (Salaries will increase by 5.3% at the start of each year of the new biennium.)
- Approved an increase in the minimum wage which will be raised from $8.25 to $8.70 beginning on Jan. 1, 2014 and from $8.70 to $9.00 on Jan. 1, 2015
- Approved requirement that probate courts share any surplus with the general fund whenever the fund balance exceeds 15% of annual spending
- Approved requirement that state comptroller develop wellness programs for municipal employees similar to that of state employee unions.
As part of Malloy’s legislative package to boost the state’s economic competitiveness, the General Assembly approved Next Generation Connecticut (NextGenCT), an initiative to prepare students for STEM careers including bioscience, engineering, digital media and technology. Lawmakers also approved borrowing $1.5 billion for the University of Connecticut to expand STEM facilities, to increase student enrollment and to double Connecticut’s STEM graduates in 10 years. The goals of the legislation include:
- increasing enrollment at the Storrs and Stamford campuses by 30%.
- expanding enrollment in UConn’s School of Engineering by 70%
- increasing number of STEM graduates by 47%
- adding 50 STEM doctoral fellowships and creating a STEM honors program
- relocating Hartford campus to improve collaboration, internships with local businesses.
In other higher ed developments:
- UConn, the Connecticut State Universities and the Connecticut Community Colleges all began the new fiscal year in financial stress. UConn, which adopted a $1.1 billion budget, is already millions of dollars in the red. Much of the shortfall has been attributed to the requirement that college officials must now pay increased pension and health care costs. In the prior fiscal year, public campuses were required to apply 46% of the payroll to cover pension costs. In the new fiscal year, that will figure will rise to 54.7%.
- The Connecticut State Universities have an $18 million to $20 million hole in their budgets.
- Tuition and fees will increase by 5.1% next fall at UConn. The price to attend the UConn will be $11,936 a year for Connecticut residents and $23,410 a year for Connecticut residents staying on campus.
- In the new spending plan, legislators approved bonding of $1.5 billion for UConn’s Next Generation initiative for construction of science, technology and engineering classrooms along with $15 million to hire new faculty and staff to accommodate 400 additional students.
- For the Connecticut State Universities and Community Colleges, legislators approved approximately $6 million for 47 faculty positions.
- A new Governor’s Scholarship Program consolidates three state-funded grant programs administered by various public and private colleges into one state-run program.*
Most of the funding for education reform was restored in the budget allowing reform measures to go forward, including $27 million for additional schools needing intervention in the Commissioner’s Network, $20 million in funding for implementing a new teacher-evaluation and support system over the next two years and funding for additional charter schools. Also included was $8.3 million in the new fiscal year and $6.3 million in the following year for implementing Common Core Standards.
In addition to continuing to fund education reform measures, Malloy signed an executive order recognizing the Office of Early Childhood as the state agency, which is responsible for coordinating and delivering services for Connecticut children. He appointed Myra Jones-Taylor as executive director of the agency.
Lawmakers passed an Act Unleashing Innovation in Connecticut Schools creating a task force to study education mandate relief for high-performing school districts. The task force will submit a report to the Joint Committee on Education no later than Oct. 1, 2013.
They also passed an Act Concerning the Board Examination Series Program establishing a program for academically gifted students that will permit them to test out of grade 12 and enroll in certain colleges and universities in Connecticut.
Carolyn Morwick handles government and community relations at NEBHE and is former director of the Caucus of New England State Legislatures.
* Note: updated Sept. 23, 2013.