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Budget, transportation among top issues for lawmakers in new Connecticut legislative session

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HARTFORD, Connecticut — Projected state budget deficits and an aging transportation infrastructure are among the key challenges Connecticut lawmakers are expected tackle when they convene the new legislative session.

Expanding jobs, reining in consumer electricity costs and overhauling domestic violence restraining orders are among some other big tasks also on tap.

Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who will be sworn into office Wednesday for a second term, has said he plans to make transportation a major issue for the session, which runs until June 3. Fresh off his re-election victory following a tough campaign season, Malloy said it's time for a "mature and detailed discussion about what it will take to turn transportation around in Connecticut." He said taxpayers need to know how much it will cost to address projects like modernizing clogged highways and upgrading battered bridges.

"It's going to be a pretty broad discussion," Malloy predicted. "Get ready for it."

Part of that discussion will focus on how to pay for those fixes, which could prove challenging. As in previous years, legislators are returning to Hartford amid projections of fiscal red ink. Both Malloy's budget office and the legislature's Office of Fiscal Analysis have projected approximately $1 billion deficits in each of the next three fiscal years. A one-year state budget in Connecticut is typically about $20 billion.

Malloy has acknowledged that reinstituting highway tolls could be a way to pay for the needed transportation improvements but stressed that "there are other ways to pay for it."

When those discussions happen, Malloy will find some new faces, including more Republicans, in the negotiations. Of the four top leaders of the caucuses, Democratic House Speaker Brendan Sharkey of Hamden is the only returning incumbent. Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, will become the new Senate president; Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, will become the new Senate minority leader; and Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, will become the new House minority leader.

Even though the Democrats still control both chambers of the General Assembly, the GOP picked up 10 seats in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate since last session. That means the Democrats now have an 87-64 majority in the House and a 21-15 majority in the Senate. Those numbers could change after a couple of upcoming special elections.

Fasano has already met privately with Malloy about the Senate Republicans' legislative priorities, including streamlining the approval process for small-business assistance programs and providing mentoring programs for inner-city students so they'll be ready to work after high school. Fasano said he's optimistic that having new players will lead to bipartisan successes.

"The governor said, 'Let me see your agenda. I'll work with you,'" Fasano said. "I thought it was a very good conversation."

Following are some other anticipated major issues for the new legislative session:

— Even though the General Assembly passed a wide-ranging bill in 2012 in response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, including gun control measures, more changes could be on the way. Malloy's 16-member Sandy Hook Advisory Commission is expected to soon release its final recommendations on ways to improve school safety, gun violence prevention and mental health services.

— Lawmakers will be presented with recommendations on ways to improve how domestic violence restraining and protective orders are issued in light of a spate of recent deaths. Additionally, the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence plans to offer ideas on how the state can better help young children who witness domestic violence.

— After last summer's death of a Greenwich teenager on Long Island Sound, lawmakers are expected to discuss possible changes to state boating laws, including the licensing process.

— A group of lawmakers have already said they plan to introduce legislation that caps fixed residential charges imposed by the state's largest electric utilities.

— Following problems at the polls in November, there's been a call for changes in how the state's locally run election system is operated to ensure more professionalism.

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