Tax cuts and speed cameras: Connecticut lawmakers wrap-up legislative session
Just like a college exam, it’s pens down at midnight Thursday for Connecticut lawmakers. From approving historic tax cuts to automated speed cameras, the 2023 legislative session was a busy one.
In the final hours, the race was on to take up hundreds of remaining bills.
“From about eight to 12, I think, is the most fascinating three or four hours in Connecticut politics,” said state House Speaker Matt Ritter (D-Hartford).
But most major issues are already decided. Here's some of what lawmakers did – and did not – pass this year.
NEW GUN LAWS
Sweeping new gun restrictions are coming, including a wider ban on assault weapons and unregistered “ghost guns” assembled from a kit.
Police report seizing more unregistered guns, but it’s difficult to prosecute offenders because existing law “grandfathered” weapons assembled before 2019.
“Even though it was not manufactured traditionally, it's still very capable and very deadly,” said Stamford Police Sgt. Sean Scanlan.
The new law also bans openly carrying a firearm in public, with limited exceptions. In the final hours of the session, lawmakers added licensed security guards to that list.
Gov. Ned Lamont signed the legislation on Tuesday, but at least one group is already promising a legal challenge.
Gun rights protesters gathered outside the Capitol on the final day of session.
“What the bill does is, it stops good people from having guns in public,” said protester Mark Stewart, a perennial minor party candidate. “And thus, it makes the rest of us defenseless.”
Automated speed and red light cameras are coming. But unlike cities like New York and Washington, D.C., drivers in Connecticut would get clear warnings when they approach the cameras.
The state is also tackling an epidemic of wrong-way drivers. A new law will install detection systems at 120 highway on-ramps. The issue was thrust to the forefront after state Rep. Quentin “Q” Williams was killed by a wrong-way driver on the first day of session.
Both Williams and the driver who struck him were both legally drunk, according to a Connecticut State Police crash report. Despite that, lawmakers rejected a push to lower the legal blood alcohol level from .08 to .05. Currently, only Utah is that low.
“SECONDARY” TRAFFIC STOPS
In a blow to criminal justice advocates, legislators dropped a proposed ban on “secondary” traffic stops like a broken headlight. In 2019, Wethersfield police killed a teenage driver during a stop for “heavily tinted windows.”
The recommendations came from a Police Transparency Accountability Task Force that studied three years of traffic data.
“Out of 298,000 traffic crashes over the last three years, a light was a contributing factor – not the lead factor, but a contributing factor – in 0.05% of all traffic crashes,” said Ken Barone, a task force member who also manages UConn’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy and the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project. “Black and Hispanic drivers are almost twice as likely to be stopped for low-level equipment and administrative offenses as white drivers.”
But critics worried the bill went too far.
“I was coming home from Hartford the other night, and I came upon a car that had no taillights at all,” said state Rep. Pat Callahan (R-New Fairfield) during a March public hearing. “So, isn't this a safety issue?”
“DECEPTIVE” INTERROGATIONS BAN
In most cases, police could no longer lie to underage suspects under a bill headed to Lamont’s desk.
The legislation makes statements inadmissible if police threaten suspects physically, or deprive them of food, bathroom breaks and sleep. For juveniles, the proposal goes even further – prohibiting false statements about evidence, the law or promises of leniency.
That’s what happened Terrill Swift. He spent 16 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit in Chicago. Swift’s case led to the nation’s first ban on deceptive interrogations. In March, he urged Connecticut lawmakers to follow suit.
“At 17 years of age, I was arrested, taken into custody, questioned for a crime I had absolutely no knowledge of,” he said. “Was threatened that I was going to die in jail, that I was never going to see my mother again.”
A similar bill passed the state Senate last year, but did not get a vote in the House of Representatives. The Connecticut Police Chief’s Association opposed it, writing, “This bill is not necessary because Connecticut police departments have policies preventing these types of actions.”
Starting next year, you’ll be able to go to the polls two weeks early.
Wednesday afternoon, Lamont signed a new law allowing 14 days of early voting. The hours will be from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. – including weekends – with extended hours on certain days.
“That's not enough because you can't do anything if you have a working schedule,” said Bobby Hanson of Easton.
Local voter registrars are concerned about the cost though. The new state budget only allocates $3.1 million to implement early voting.
Connecticut’s top election official is frustrated, too.
“You get the elections that you pay for, and this budget shortchanges Connecticut’s voters, pushes the burden of paying for Early Voting on to our towns, and removes funding to educate Connecticut’s citizens of how they can register and vote to participate in our democracy,” said Democratic Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas.
Voting by mail could get easier soon too. Right now, voters must give a reason to cast an absentee ballot, such as illness or being out of town. But this year, the General Assembly approved a state constitutional amendment removing absentee ballot restrictions. The question now goes to voters on the November 2024 ballot.
LITTLE MOVEMENT ON HOUSING CRISIS
Experts say Connecticut has a severe shortage of homes people can afford. In his February budget address, Lamont said it was one the state’s most critical issues.
“We're still desperately short of housing,” he told lawmakers. “Having just climbed out of a fiscal crisis, I don't want to fall into a housing crisis.”
Lawmakers are devoting around $600 million in bonding to build new housing, but getting many towns to actually allow it is a challenge.
With just hours to spare on Wednesday and plenty of bills awaiting action, state senators spent much of the day debating controversial legislation to address the crisis. It would assign each community a "Fair Share" affordable housing quota. Even though the allocations are no longer mandatory – now they’re only “informational” – many Fairfield County lawmakers think it's a slippery slope.
“It's a clear shot across the bow against local control of our towns and cities in Connecticut,” said state Sen. Ryan Fazio (R-Greenwich).
Urban Democrats attempted to persuade their suburban counterparts.
“People feel like we're forcing something on them,” said state Sen. Marilyn Moore (D-Bridgeport). “But this is just the beginning of trying to figure out, what is the best thing for us to do? Nobody is forcing anything on this.”
The bill also contains new protections for renters and fines for substandard housing violations. It passed Wednesday night after Republicans dropped a nine-hour filibuster.
LABOR AGENDA STALLS
Several workers’ rights bills were abandoned, including a controversial proposal extending paid sick leave to nearly all private-sector workers. Currently, only larger employers have to offer it.
Lawmakers also failed to pass a Warehouse Workers’ Protection Act, a minimum wage for tipped workers and ride-share drivers and extra pay for last-minute shift changes.
“AID IN DYING”
Despite pleas from terminally ill patients and their families, Connecticut lawmakers once again rejected “aid-in-dying” legislation that would let patients end their lives with a doctor’s help.
Similar bills have failed 15 times before. Ten states and Washington, D.C. already allow medical aid-in-dying.
"It is beyond disappointing that the Judiciary Committee did not advance legislation to give terminally ill people the option to end unbearable suffering at the end of life, when we know it has widespread support from an overwhelming majority of Connecticut voters," Tim Appleton of Compassion & Choices Action Network said in a statement.
Connecticut residents now have another option, though.
Vermont now allows residents to end their own lives. The move came after a woman from Bridgeport sued the state of Vermont, eventually reaching a settlement letting her travel there for physician-assisted suicide.
WINE IN GROCERY STORES
It's not time for wine – at least not in grocery stores.
Despite strong public support, the perennial push to expand wine sales failed once again over concerns from package stores.
Grocery stores can sell wine in 42 states. At a marathon hearing in February, they argued it’s time to change the law.
"Connecticut consumers want the experience of perfectly pairing their meal with wine, and having both readily available in the same store,” Rob Rybick, president of Geissler's Supermarkets, testified before the General Assembly’s General Law committee.
But the state’s powerful liquor store lobby, representing 1,250 stores, said the move is a job-killer.
"Package stores would lose an estimated up to 20% of their business, close to a 50% decline in the value of their asset,” argued David Leon, owner of Bloomfield Discount Liquors.
The 2023 session was most notable for its lack of drama, including a bi-partisan budget that passed by wide margins. Lawmakers said a record budget surplus made the task easier.
“When you don't have deficits that you're trying to deal with, it makes the conversation a little bit easier, so you can focus on priorities,” said state Rep. Vin Candelora (R-Branford), the top Republican in the Connecticut House.