Committee pass bill requiring seat belts on school buses
HARTFORD -- State lawmakers pushed ahead a bill requiring new school buses to install lap and shoulder seat belts, despite reservations about imposing the mandate on towns and cities during fiscally tough times.
"This is a difficult issue but also basically a no-brainer in that we want to do everything to make the children in this state safe," said state Sen. L. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, who voted to pass the bill out of committee. "But I am deeply concerned about the funding for this program when it comes into effect."
The General Assembly's Transportation Committee voted the bill out of committee by a 29-7 margin on Monday afternoon. Since 1989, the legislature has considered 23 other bills proposing a seat belt mandate for buses, none of which successfully passed through the Transportation Committee.
The bill, sponsored in January by state Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, has been amended to require that new buses purchased after 2012 include the three-point safety belts and drops a requirement to retrofit all buses by 2011.
Guerrera said he understood the funding and logistical issues involved with installing the belts, and would be open to revising the bill to lessen the fiscal impact.
"This will be a work-in-progress bill, but first and foremost it is important to keep this dialogue going and have the conversation with the bus companies," Guerrera said.
State Rep. David Scribner, R-Bethel, told the committee he was voting to move the bill forward, though it was unclear to him how to cost-effectively carry out a requirement that students wear the belts.
"I have a hard time with the bill not because I'm not concerned about the safety issues but of the impact of if we were to impose that mandate onto districts that are already struggling," Scribner said. "Rep. Guerrera said that he wants to continue the debate and work on the bill and I don't have an ounce of doubt he intends to do that."
State Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, one of the five committee members who voted against the bill, said he was uniformly against enacting any unfunded mandates affecting towns.
"I am voting for zero unfunded mandates in this session and going forward," McLachlan said.
The committee also advanced a number of other bills, including a law banning hand-held cell phones proposed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell in January instituting tougher fines and abolishing a provision that exempts first-time offenders from a fine if they purchase a hands-free accessory and present it in court.
"I'm glad we're getting rid of the exemption for the first-time offense, which has proven to be a real obstacle to enforcement," state Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said. "It will be good to see the law start to be enforced vigorously."
The committee also dropped a bill that would ban the possession of open containers of alcohol in motor vehicles, which would have excluded limousines and vehicles for hire.
Duff said that while he supported Guerrera's seat belt bill in order to continue a discussion on the issue, it was unlikely the legislature would make a final decision on school bus safety this session.
"I think it's important to educate legislators and the public of different tactics we can use to improve school bus safety, from seat belts to enhanced safety measures when kids are getting on and off buses," Duff said.
Scribner said that the legislature could possibly craft legislation offering a sales-tax credit on the purchase of new school buses for towns in order to defray the cost of the lap belts.
Some school officials and the Connecticut School Transportation Association have opposed the legislation because of doubts on whether installing seat belts is fiscally reasonable, and questioning whether the devices provide a significant safety gain.