By Ken Dixon
and Brian Lockhart
Malloy challenged the new General Assembly to not only work together toward more gun control and better mental health legislation, but to also balance the budget and promote job growth in a bipartisan way.
During a 26-minute State of the State speech that started the legislative session, Malloy fought back tears when talking about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. He said it will test the role of government.
“As a state and as a community, we will continue to do everything we can for the families of Newtown,” Malloy told a joint session of the House and Senate. “But we also must ask ourselves: What is our responsibility? To those we’ve lost, to one another, to our children and to future generations?
“During this legislative session, we’re going to begin to answer those questions together. Let us do everything in our power to ensure that Connecticut never again suffers such a loss; that we take real steps to make our kids and our communities safer.”
The ultimate goal of the 21-week session will result in a new two-year budget to take effect July 1, but the Newtown shootings have put the state in the forefront of the national debate on guns.
Malloy said that mental health issues arising from the session “must balance our respect for individual rights with our obligation to provide for the greater public safety. And when it comes to preventing future acts of violence in our schools, let me say this: More guns are not the answer. Freedom is not a handgun on the hip of every teacher, and security should not mean a guard posted outside every classroom. That is not who we are in Connecticut, and it is not who we will allow ourselves to become.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday also asked for tougher gun-control laws.
Rep. Gerald M. Fox III, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee, said that legislative leaders are discussing the possibility of having a joint public hearing between his committee and the Public Safety Committee on gun-control legislation.
“In the past, it has been a hearing that has been traditionally dominated by pro-NRA, pro-gun groups and supporters,” Fox told reporters. “I expect this time that group will also be present, but I expect others who will give a more diverse range of views: more pro-gun control, pro-assault-weapon control and ammunition control.”
State Rep. Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford, vice chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said that bipartisan views on gun violence may bring together the Legislature on other issues.
“The Sandy Hook situation is making us see what is really important (and) the only way we’re going to get through this budget deficit is to act like a community,” Miller said. “It’s just unfortunate we had to have a Sandy Hook to realize that.”
Malloy is at the halfway point of his four-year term and will propose a budget next month. But in reviewing his first two years, the governor used the touchstones of economic growth, energy costs, jobs and the fragile coastline as subjects where lawmakers can come together to develop new legislation.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle reacted favorably Malloy’s agenda, which will dominate the session.
House Minority Leader Lawrence M. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, called for lawmakers “to carry the spirit of Sandy Hook forward. That could be our greatest tribute to those heroes and angels who sacrificed their lives back in Newtown.”
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, whose district includes Newtown, said he generally appreciated the tone of Malloy’s speech.
McKinney said he hopes that the governor and Democrats, with majorities of 99-52 in the House and 22-14 in the Senate, can keep the bipartisan feeling of the recent special session.
“When the governor and the Democrats passed a budget on their own, we did not have a good work product, but when we reached consensus on jobs in 2011 and the recent special session, we succeeded,” McKinney said in an interview. “My hope is we’ll engage in another bipartisan budget product.”
Last month, between a special legislative session and unilateral spending cuts ordered by Malloy, a $365 million shortfall was closed.
While guns and the budget take center stage this session, many of the region’s representatives and senators who have leadership positions said they are looking forward to progressing on fiscal issues and economic development.
Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, the new co-chairman of the Energy and Technology Committee, said he looks forward to moving forward with the governor’s agenda to lower consumer electric rates. “I think we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “We want to continue to work to grow our economy, to try to get out of this stubborn recession.”
Rep. Terrie Wood, R-Darien, said that in addition to acting “responsibly” about firearms, the state’s fiscal condition is crucial this year. She said that some of the gun-control proposals can be classified as “knee-jerk” in reaction to Newtown.
“Whatever we do has to encompass mental health issues as well,” she said in an interview.
“We are losing businesses, we are losing people because of our economic environment here,” she said. “I am of the school that we make it easier for all the businesses, as opposed to just picking a few and giving them an incentive and giving them some money.”
She said that when lawmakers last year scuttled plans to hike taxes on small aviation companies, they stayed in state rather than migrating elsewhere.
“To me that’s a perfect example of how tax policy can drive the attraction of businesses to Connecticut and keep them here,” she said. “Nine percent or 8.8 percent unemployment is really high.”
Of the 135 House bills listed as filed on Wednesday, 27 were sponsored by Lavielle, including a proposal to prohibit some public employees from receiving a state or municipal salary at the same time they are getting a state or municipal pension; and to enforce the constitutional limitation on expenditures.
Cafero said his GOP House caucus represents a third of the state and should be treated accordingly by majority Democrats. He told House members to not forget their families, their constituents and their personal health.
“It’s a stressful job,” he said. “It’s a tough job. We’re only here because of the people back home.”
In traditional first-day ceremonies, Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, was unanimously approved for another term. He said it’s important to address gun violence.
“Our goal must not be to do what little we can, but rather to do all we can to remove the weapons of war from those who would assault our children and our communities,” Williams said.
In the House, new Speaker of the House J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, told the 151 House members to look around the historic, 1878 chamber, savor the moment and applaud themselves.
“That’s enough, we have work to do,” he said afterward.