Gasoline and diesel taxes went up. State employees including judges received pay raises. And new restrictions on guns took effect because of the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
Those and many other new laws became effective Monday as the state entered a new fiscal year. The $21.5 billion annual budget took effect, paying for everything from dental care for prison inmates to salaries for University of Connecticut professors.
Among the most controversial items is the increase in the state’s complicated gasoline tax. The tax went up by about 4 cents per gallon, based on the wholesale price of gasoline. The state also has a separate gasoline tax of 25 cents per gallon, which is a fixed rate that does not change when the wholesale price fluctuates.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said recently that he would not make any moves to stop the tax increase because the legislature had already decided — back in 2005 under Gov. M. Jodi Rell — to hike the tax as part of a long-term plan.
“I wasn’t governor in 2005,” Malloy told reporters. “I wasn’t the minority leader of the House or the minority leader of the Senate in 2005.”
He added, “I do know that, in the state of Connecticut, we need to get transportation right. We need a coordinated policy. We are developing that. I left out Route 11, which I still believe should be completed, as well as the interchange at 395 and 95, which has never worked properly. We need to move forward on transportation specifically, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
But Sen. Joseph Markley, a Southington Republican, said the state is making a mistake by hiking the gasoline tax, which pushes some drivers across the state border for cheaper gas.
“I wasn’t a senator in 2005, either,” Markley said of Malloy’s remarks. “I wouldn’t have been voting for it in 2005. Bad policy is bad policy. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Republican or Democrat. People in the state really can’t believe we’re doing it. There is this sense of ‘what are you guys thinking?’ Whichever direction you go, it’s cheaper. It’s not just Massachusetts. It’s Rhode Island and New York.”
Markley added: “It’s exactly the wrong place to put a tax. The gas tax, which should be going to roads and bridges, is instead being dumped into the general fund. It’s bad all around.”
In addition to the gasoline tax, the tax on diesel fuel went up Monday by 3.5 cents per gallon.
Following the Newtown shootings of 20 children and six educators, the state legislature passed a comprehensive gun-control bill that provided restrictions on the sale of weapons. Some provisions took effect as soon as Malloy signed the bill, and others will not take effect until the traditional date for new state laws on Oct. 1.
But various provisions that are tied to the state budget or involve funding changes took effect Monday. For example, the state is setting aside $1 million for a statewide firearms trafficking task force in an attempt to better enforce the gun laws. In addition, the state’s mental health commissioner must provide services for as many as 100 patients with mental illness who were not receiving those services as of Sunday and who have cases pending in the probate courts.
The gun-control measure also includes new requirements for anyone buying so-called long guns and ammunition. Unlike in the past, would-be buyers now must undergo criminal background checks before being allowed to buy shotguns and rifles in Connecticut. Buyers also now must be 18 or older to buy a long gun.
Similarly, applicants also now must undergo a background check before receiving a certificate to purchase ammunition. Both the long-gun and ammunition certificates cost $35 and last for five years.
Another high-profile change in state law is that safety is being improved at public school swimming pools. Schools now are required to have a trained swimming instructor or lifeguard on duty during swimming lessons, practices or competitions. That additional person will be required to watch for and assist swimmers who are in danger. And districts are required to develop a safety plan for their school pools by next year.
In addition, state employees received raises Monday, including judges, whose pay increased by 5.3 percent in the first of two increases. The raises did not draw much attention at the Capitol this year.
Some of the new laws are directly related to the budget, which is closing the books for the just-completed fiscal year. The final tallies will not be officially calculated until September, but state Comptroller Kevin Lembo announced Monday that the expected surplus for the past fiscal year is $189.1 million.
That total is based on Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, known as GAAP, as the state is trying to switch its accounting method. The surplus under the state’s traditional accounting system would be $236.6 million.
The state legislature has already spent virtually all of the surplus to balance the state’s budget in the future. About $220.8 million is already set aside for future spending. Whatever is left over, which is $15.8 million at the moment, will be placed in the “rainy day fund” for fiscal emergencies.
“The state’s financial outlook has further improved this month — good news, but still showing reasons for caution because the most significant gains were potentially related to one-time revenue windfalls,” Lembo said in a statement. “The most significant revenue growth has occurred in the inheritance and estate tax, which is $269.8 million over budget.”
He added, “The economic recovery proceeded at a slower-than-expected pace during fiscal year 2013.”
Story by Christopher Keating, Hartford Courant