Among New Priorities, a Lot of Unfinished Business at State Capitol

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The legislative session is about to start, and lawmakers hope to pack a lot into the next three months.

“It’s a little bit like herding cats to get everybody moving in the same direction,” said Representative Gregg Haddad a Democrat from Mansfield.  “It’s not surprising to me on something as controversial as tolling that sometimes it can take some time to get the right coalition together.”

After struggling to find the support needed to pass trucks-only tolls last year, Democrats have their eyes on the first full week of this year’s session to get it passed.

“Infrastructure support is going to be an important priority,” said State Senator Saud Anwar, a Democrat from South Windsor.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides said on Monday that her top priority is stopping it from passing.

“The issue shouldn’t only be how do we get money to fund transportation.  We already have money, a lot of money, half a billion dollars today is in the special transportation fund,” said Klarides

That’s money Republicans say is being spent on pensions, wages, and healthcare for transportation employees at the DMV and DOT instead of critical road work.  Klarides said she not only wants to put the brakes on tolling but also restructure the way the state spends its money.

“There is a golden opportunity to move this state forward not just for a couple years but for the history and future of these kids,” she said.

Senate Republican Kevin Witkos says he’s worried about a lawsuit in Rhode Island over their trucks-only tolling program.

“If the will of the people is that we have tolls in Connecticut do it based on sound factual judgement but to just go ahead and run ahead when we know there’s a lawsuit pending, why would we want to do that,” said Witkos.

The Democrats NBC Connecticut talked to said they’re ready to vote next week and aren’t worried about the repercussions at the ballot box.

“I think this is the best shot we have at making a serious investment in our transportation future,” said Rep. Gregg Haddad of Mansfield.

“If we start to look at everything from the prism of elections we will actually not make the right choices,” added Sen. Saud Anwar of South Windsor.

Another hot topic: marijuana.  Haddad counts 13,000 UConn college students among his constituents and said he would support a plan to make recreational use of the drug legal.

“I think there’s sometimes concern not just about whether they can use it legally but what it means if they get caught and what the ramifications will be over their lifetime,” said Haddad.

“All of our neighboring states have it, that doesn’t mean we should have it,” said Witkos, adding that he’s not against the legalization but he is against the current proposal.

A former police officer, Witkos said it doesn’t adequately account for drugged driving.

“We have no test right now for marijuana.  We want to make sure our roads are safe,” said Witkos.

Many of the issues expected to be up for debate this year are holdovers from last year that weren’t voted on either because there wasn’t enough support or lawmakers simply ran out of time. There’s even less time this year, with the General Assembly set to adjourn a month sooner, May 6. 

One piece of unfinished business: free tuition at the state’s community colleges. It was added into the budget, but the program is still without a funding source.  The idea was to devote the revenue from iLottery, which would allow players to buy lottery tickets on their phones.  While iLotto hasn’t become reality, the state’s community colleges are already accepting applications to the $6 to $12 million free tuition program.

“I think that we are cutting off our nose to spite our face if we don’t provide free college for students in Connecticut,” said Haddad. “If we don’t do it I really worry about whether or not our economy will recover the way that we hope it will.”

A stalemate over sports betting seems to be solved by a new bill that gives Connecticut’s tribes exclusive rights. It also includes an existing plan for a casino in East Windsor along with a future casino in Bridgeport. 

Anwar said the bill has bipartisan support in every chamber of the legislature.

“It’s going to be good for municipalities, it’s going to be good for the state, it’s going to be good for the workforce, and it’s going to bring more people to our state as well,” he said.

Other controversial issues, like trucks-only tolling and legalizing marijuana, may be harder to get passed or even voted on during this election year. 

“The reason why most people in this building want to do it is because they want the revenue and if whether it’s tolls or marijuana or any other tax this state has to just top sticking their hands in the pockets of the people of Connecticut,” Klarides said.

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