Connecticut's legislative session in review

·9 min read

Jun. 18—Recreational cannabis and a bipartisan state budget defined a busy legislative session in Connecticut, but several other measures carry statewide and local implications.

During the regular session, Democrats achieved a number of policy goals related to criminal justice, voting rights, income inequality and transportation. Still, House Democrats had expected to get to passing a recreational marijuana bill that had been passed by the state Senate, but ran out of time. Republican filibustering and extended debate caused Democratic leadership to throw the legislature into special session, which concluded Thursday.

Marijuana

Come July 1, possession of marijuana will be legal in Connecticut, and retail sales will likely be underway by May 2022. A monthslong process to legalize marijuana, which some lawmakers noted has been decades in the making, at last reached a conclusion during the special session after an arduous back and forth between chambers.

Legalized homegrown marijuana, opportunities for those impacted by drug laws and steep licensing fees for existing dispensaries are included in the bill passed Thursday by the state Senate. The Department of Consumer Protection will be in charge of awarding licenses to retailers and cultivators. Shops can be set up in any city or town in Connecticut, though municipalities have the power to ban the existence of dispensaries or cannabis deliveries in their jurisdiction. The state's medical marijuana dispensaries will have the opportunity to sell recreational cannabis, as well, but for the price of $1 million, or $500,000 if the venture is majority-owned by an equity applicant.

The equity applicant program is designed for those who have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs to have an easier and separate process to start a marijuana enterprise, rather than competing with corporations. Equity applicants are designated as people who live in specific geographic areas that have been most hard-hit by the war on drugs. Equity applicants must have at minimum 65% ownership and control of relevant companies.

State budget

The 2022-23 budget was passed on a bipartisan basis. The proposed $46.4 billion, two-year spending plan has been praised by Democrats as one investing in racial equity as well as Connecticut municipalities, nonprofits and schools without accessing the rainy day fund. Republicans, with exceptions, also supported the budget, noting that it does not raise or incorporate new taxes. Lamont held fast to no tax increases or new taxes despite protestations from the progressive wing of his party.

In all, Lyme, East Lyme, Old Lyme, New London, Norwich, Ledyard, Groton, Waterford, Montville, Stonington and North Stonington are set to receive more than $320 million during the next two years. That money is spread throughout payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, funding, annual revenue from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, Education Cost Sharing and adult education.

New London, Norwich and Groton are the largest beneficiaries.

New London will receive almost $15 million in PILOT funding as well as about $60 million in Education Cost Sharing funding over two years. In addition, the city will be getting more than $1 million from the tribes, from the municipal stabilization grant and for adult education.

Groton can expect to see more than $3 million in PILOT funding in 2022 and 2023 as well as more than $50 million in ECS funding. Groton also should see more than $2 million from the tribes over two years, almost $1 million from the municipal stabilization grant and more than $200,000 for adult education.

Norwich should see almost $6 million in PILOT funding over two years, as well as more than $80 million in ECS funding. The city is slated to see almost $5 million from the tribes, almost $700,000 for adult education and more than $400,000 from the municipal stabilization grant.

For total funding from the biennial budget, East Lyme could get almost $16 million, North Stonington almost $7 million, Old Lyme about $1 million, Waterford about $1.3 million, Stonington about $2.7 million, Ledyard almost $27 million, Lyme almost $250,000 and Montville almost $32 million. Most of the money will be in the form of funding for education.

Budget implementer

Though much of the 837-page "budget implementer" concerns the implementation of a bipartisan state budget, it also contains a host of unrelated provisions. Those include initiatives regarding labor, business, education, health care and other matters. Several aspects of the legislation in particular carry implications for southeastern Connecticut.

One of the provisions stipulates that municipalities with schools that still have Native American-related mascots would lose funding. Cities and towns have until June 2024 to inform the state Office of Policy and Management of intent to change the names and mascots, or get permission from tribes to keep them. Otherwise, the municipalities will lose funding starting in June 2023.

Funding from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund is at stake. According to the bill, "no municipality shall be paid a grant from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund ... if a school under the jurisdiction of the board of education for such municipality, or an intramural or interscholastic athletic team associated with such school, uses any name, symbol or image that depicts, refers to or is associated with a state or federally recognized Native American tribe or a Native American individual, custom or tradition, as a mascot, nickname, logo or team name."

But, if schools have written consent from a recognized tribe within its region to use such iconography, they are off the hook. Written consent can include a tribal council resolution, an agreement between a tribal government and town or a tribal-government-endorsed statement of consent.

Voting rights

Though the legislature approved a no-excuse absentee voting measure, it did not reach the 75% threshold of votes needed to put the question on the ballot in 2022. Without 75% of both the House and Senate voting in favor of the resolution, legislators will have to revisit the question in either 2023 or 2024. Since both chambers passed the no-excuse absentee voting measure this session, when the question is revisited, only a simple majority vote in the House and Senate would put the idea to Connecticut voters in a 2024 referendum.

Lawmakers also passed an early voting resolution, which will allow voters to decide in 2022 via referendum whether the state should allow early voting.

The special session budget implementer bill essentially contained Senate Bill 5, a voting rights bill passed by the Senate but uncalled in the House during regular session. Championed by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, it would make voting drop boxes a permanent fixture rather than merely a stopgap measure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it would allow people on parole to register and vote, and it would expand on an automatic voter registration program run through the Department of Motor Vehicles and other state agencies.

A surprise, though: The implementer bill includes language that would establish a pilot program "for the manual or electronic verification of signatures on the inner envelopes for returned absentee ballots at the 2022 state election." Merrill as well as House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, had said they're opposed to such a measure. Republicans supported it.

Criminal justice

Several criminal justice reforms passed during the legislative session, including the "clean slate" bill meant to scrub certain convictions from an individual's criminal records. Under the bill, Class D and E felonies as well as misdemeanors would be erased from a person's criminal record if they don't commit another crime for seven or 10 years. The time they have to go without committing a crime is connected to the severity of the convictions.

Senate Bill 753, passed by the legislature last month and signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont on May 26, affects the way incarcerated people are counted when it comes to the census. Under this measure, inmates will be counted as residents of their last town of residence rather than of the town in which the correctional facility is located.

Under the previous system, incarcerated people were counted as residents of the town where they were imprisoned, effectively boosting the population of these towns when the census is conducted. Since representation in the General Assembly is based on population, this gave towns that have prisons a higher population count than they might otherwise have and, potentially, larger amounts of state funding.

Opponents of this practice have referred to it as "prison gerrymandering" and claim that it unfairly advantages rural areas. These small towns generally have more prisons than urban areas, despite the fact that most of the incarcerated people are from cities. Prisons such as the ones in Montville and East Lyme can generate vital economic activity for these towns, but having issues within prisons can often bleed over into the surrounding community and tax local resources.

Gaming

An agreement between Gov. Ned Lamont and the Mohegan and Mashantucket-Pequot Tribes to legalize online gaming and sports wagering was passed by the legislature.

The bill allows the tribes to conduct in-person and online sports wagering as well as fantasy contests at their respective casinos, Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, which are located on the tribes' reservations, and to conduct sports wagering, online gaming and fantasy contests outside their reservations.

It also authorizes the Connecticut Lottery Corp. to conduct retail and online sports wagering, online keno and online lottery draw games. Specifically, it allows the lottery to provide sports wagering at up to 15 locations, including Hartford and Bridgeport, and specifies that any of them may be licensed to the state's off-track betting operator, Sportech Venues.

Connecticut Port Authority

A bipartisan group of eastern Connecticut legislators led the passage of a bill they say provides for more oversight and financial transparency of the Connecticut Port Authority, a fledgling quasi-public agency whose early years were marred by controversy.

The bill requires the port authority to submit regular financial reports and status updates on pending contracts, small harbor projects and the $235.5 million construction project at State Pier in New London.

In addition to the reporting requirements, the bill adds six new members to the port authority board of directors. Three of the new members are chief elected officials or their designees from New London, New Haven and Bridgeport — all deepwater port cities. There also will be representatives from municipalities with small harbors on the board.

State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, co-sponsored the bill and said he consistently pushed for New London to have a seat at the table, especially considering the port authority's State Pier project is in New London and the city was mostly left out of many of the discussions concerning its development and financial benefits. State Pier is to be modernized to accommodate a staging area for offshore wind turbines.

s.spinella@theday.com

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