The Capitol Beat: March 4-8, 2013

From Gaffney, Bennett & Associates

March 4, 2013 – March 8, 2013

From here on until we begin hitting committee bill deadlines — the first up being the Children’s, Aging and Veteran’s Committees on March 12 —  the pace of work will be breakneck. The latest deadlines for voting bills out of committee are reserved for the largest committees: Judiciary (4/19), Appropriations (4/23), and Finance, Revenue and Bonding (4/24).  All the other committees’ deadlines fall somewhere in between, which means it will be a frenetic month ahead. On a positive note: national news headlines trumpeted a surprising and significant drop in the jobless rate—to 7.7 percent—a four-year low.  Economists are still keeping their powder dry on just how meaningful this is given the federal spending cuts that went into effect last Friday. The cause-and-effect of that development is still playing out.

Meantime, last week at the Capitol, proved as busy as ever.  Below are some highlights of actions taken in between snowstorms.

General Assembly Passes Sandy Hook Workers Assistance Fund:  The fund, to be financed entirely through private and corporate donations and pro bono legal assistance from the CT Trail Lawyers Association and others, covers gaps for mental health services not currently covered by traditional Workers Compensation.  It is designed to assist individuals who suffered psychological trauma stemming from their work at the site of the Sandy Hill elementary school tragedy. The program and the Fund will be maintained and operated by the Office of Victim Services, and authorizes the Office to accept gifts, donations and grants from private sources on behalf of the Fund.   Charitable organizations, for example, the United Way, will also be able to accept donations for disbursement to the Fund. Already, the Fund has received several hundred thousand dollars for eligible recipients and is hoping to raise $5 million. Among the preliminary contributors to the fund were: AT&T and Northeast Utilities.

Once Again, Ben Barnes Takes the Barbs:  His narrative testimony on the Governor’s proposed revenue package –SB 843- was relatively brief and consisted of a summary of the overarching proposals contained in the bill, but that was just the beginning of a long day in the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee hearing Monday.  In his sincere, but dispassionate manner, the Governor’s budget secretary, Ben Barnes, said the bill contains the major revenue elements the Governor wants “to maintain the substantial progress made in securing a long-term sustainable budget,” despite the sluggish economy. “Importantly, this budget contains no new taxes,” Barnes wrote in his testimony.  It does, however, extend some old ones that were set to expire. Specifically, the bill would extend the 20-percent corporation tax surcharge, and the tax on electric generators, and would reduce the amount of tax credits that insurance companies can access. Interestingly, while there were plenty of people lined up to argue against these taxes, perhaps the most robust opposition came from the resurrection of a proposal first introduced, in a slightly different form by former Gov. Jodi Rell.  Numerous representatives of towns spoke in opposition to the Governor’s proposal to exempt up to $20,000 of the assessed value of motor vehicles from the property tax. They told the committee that it would simply force them to increase property taxes at the local level, and, in some cases, play havoc with their town budgeting. It’s hard to divine if this proposal has much of a shelf life. If not, the onus will fall on the Finance Committee and Legislature to find additional revenue.

DEEP into Implementation of Governor’s Comprehensive Energy Strategy:  Commissioner Daniel C. Esty of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), discussed in great detail the Governor’s collaborative plan to create a Comprehensive Energy Strategy – HB 6360 — during a public hearing before the Energy & Technology Committee this week.  Priority # 1 he said is to create more efficient, cheaper, cleaner, more reliable energy sources in Connecticut, with a long-term emphasis on building out the state’s natural gas infrastructure. He noted that the Governor’s budget includes a $500 incentive to consumers who are currently near but not connected to natural gas lines to hook up and convert between July 1, 2013 and January 1, 2014.   The payment would be credited to their bill and gas companies would receive a tax credit on their public utilities tax, with an annual credit cap of $5 million. Additionally, the Commissioner remarked that the goal is to have greater diversification of energy choices for consumers, including a major expansion of renewable energy options within the next 5-10 years. He hinted that the Governor would be making an announcement very soon on this front.  He said the platform exists to build on these initiatives as well as to use smaller amounts of government funding to leverage private capital. He mentioned the development of a Green Bank, reductions in power outages and work on metering and sub-metering as marks of progress, but noted that a great deal of work lies ahead to improve Connecticut’s energy efficiency and independence.

Environment Committee Narrowly Approves Labeling of Certain Products Containing BPA:  By a relatively narrow margin, the Environment Committee passed a bill Monday requiring labeling of food product packaging containing Bisphenol-A.  The amended language exempted beverage containers, but the proposal is representative of those being considered in Europe and across the states, despite the fact that the FDA, and other toxicologists argue that there is not enough scientific-based evidence to justify or viify this important packaging ingredient.

Micromanagement 101:  Meanwhile, the Children’s Committee held a public hearing on Tuesday on numerous proposals aimed at buffering children from such things as exposure to cadmium in jewelry, genetically engineered baby food, obesity in early childhood, and pesticides on school grounds.   Those in the audience even got a brief lesson in marketing and economic principles associated with children’s products from House co-chair Diana Urban, an economist-turned legislator.

List of Public Hearings for 3/11—3/15

Monday, March 11

Finance Committee

10:30 am | Room 2E

Subjects: Department of Revenue Services Bills, comptroller Bill and Finance Raised Bills

Government Administration and Elections Committee

11 am | Room 2B

Subjects: E-Government, contracting preference, ethics

Judiciary Committee

11 am | Room 2C

Subjects: Sentencing Commission recommendations and Misc. Bills

Planning and Development Committee*

6 pm | East Hartford Parks and Recreation Department

Subjects: Blighted commercial properties

Tuesday, March 12

Commerce Committee

10 am | Room 1D

Subject: Business-related tax credits

Insurance Committee

1 pm | Room 2A

Subjects: Adverse determinations, regulating self-funded plans

Labor Committee

3 pm | Room 1C

Subjects: FMLA and healthcare

Thursday, March 14

Labor Committee*

12 noon | Manchester (TBA)

Subjects: Personnel files, hospital payments, workers’ comp

Higher Education Committee

1 pm | Room 1E

Subjects: Higher education

Friday, March 15

Environment Committee

10:30 am | Room 2B

Subjects: DEEP administrative streamlining, general permits

Public Health Committee

10:30 am | Room 1D

Subjects: Governor’s budget bills, food labeling, nonprofit hospitals

NOTE: Unless specified with an (*) all hearings will be held in the Legislative Office Building in rooms denoted.  Click on Committee names to view agenda.

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