Looking back on a busy session

The General Assembly made significant progress this year in addressing my top priorities for this year's session: cutting taxes, improving public education and preserving quality health care.

One of the first bills I introduced at the outset of the session back in February was to cut the gas tax by five cents a gallon. Other legislators scoffed at the notion that we could accomplish this, which is why I am so delighted that we did even better. We cut the gas tax by seven cents a gallon, effective July 1.

The lower gas tax will save motorists traveling in Connecticut upward of $94 million a year, providing taxpayers with relief from the high gas prices we have seen in recent months. The gas tax cut is the centerpiece of this year's tax reduction package, but by no means is it the only tax cut.

Some of the other tax cuts include an increase from $50 to $75 in the sales tax exemption for clothing and footwear, and Connecticut's first "sales tax-free week." From August 20-26, no sales tax will be charged on any item of clothing or footwear priced under $500.

We also took another step forward during the 2000 session in the ongoing efforts to strengthen public education in Connecticut. One new law targets the high dropout rate that is especially acute in our cities (one out of every two students does not finish high school in Hartford.) This law raises from 16 to 18 the age at which a student can drop out without permission from his or her parent or guardian.

I also continued my efforts to reduce the financial burden placed on our towns by the high cost of providing special education. I was among the introducers of an amendment presented in the House of Representatives to reduce the amount the local district must pay for special education before it qualifies for additional state funding for this purpose. Unfortunately, the amendment did not pass, but it did set the stage for further consideration of this issue in the next session.

The ongoing effort to protect quality health care also received a boost during this year's session. This year's tax cuts include the complete repeal of the gross receipts tax on hospitals, retroactive to April 1. The repeal of this so-called "tax on the sick" will mean $75 million in annual tax relief for hospitals.

Our hospitals are facing a financial crisis, brought on primarily by the low payments they receive from managed care plans and the federal government (Medicare). While lasting solutions must come from the federal government, we did not sit by and wait for Washington to act. In addition to eliminating the gross receipts tax, we passed legislation establishing the commission on the Future of Health Care in Connecticut to undertake a comprehensive study and make recommendations for preserving quality care.

We also built upon the comprehensive legislation, passed last year to make managed care plans more accountable. The new state budget provides the funding necessary to get the Office of Managed Care Ombudsman up and running. This office will educate patients covered by managed care plans about their rights and assist them in exercising those rights. Other health care legislation passed this year requires insurance plans to cover ostomy supplies and sets up a detailed system for evaluating and protecting the quality of emergency medical services.

These are but a few highlights of the actions taken in Hartford this year. If you would like more information, or a Summary of Major Public Acts, please contact me. You can write to me, State Representative Themis Klarides, Room 4200, Legislative Office Building, Hartford 06106-1591, send me e-mail at Themis.Klarides@housegop.state.ct.us or call my office toll-free at 1-800-842-1423.

Rep. Klarides serves Woodbridge and Orange.