Senate poised to pass paid sick days by slimmest of margins

With Gov. Dannel P. Malloy openly lobbying for the bill, proponents of controversial legislation mandating paid sick days said Thursday night they appeared to have at least the bare minimum of votes necessary for passage in the Senate.

House approval is considered likely.

"We're cautiously optimistic we have the votes," said Jon Green, the director of the Working Families Party, the labor-affiliated group leading the charge for Connecticut to become the first state to pass such a bill.

"We assume it's one vote, either way," said Joseph Brennan, the senior vice president for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the highest-profile opponent of the bill.

At least 18 votes are necessary for passage. An 18-to-18 tie in the 36-seat chamber would be broken by the presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, a strong supporter of the bill. A vote is not expected until next week.

The reach of the bill has been repeatedly narrowed to ease the concerns of some opponents since it was first debated in the Senate three years ago, but it remains a hugely important symbolic issue for both organized labor and for business.

To proponents, passage would generate national news, as would the so-called "captive audience bill," a measure on the Senate calendar that would bar employers from forcing their workers to attend political or religious meetings.

Opponents say the paid-sick-days bill would further paint Connecticut as hostile to business.

"Our members are pretty visceral in their reaction, even if they are not directly affected," Brennan said.

The bill would require companies with more than 50 employees to offer paid sick time, based on hours worked. Vacation or other paid time off could be applied to the requirement.

Originally proposed to cover many segments of the economy, the measure has been narrowed to service employees, such as restaurant workers, school bus drivers and nursing home health aides.

The limited focus serves a twofold purpose: It strengthens a rationale that the bill is a public health measure, not a labor benefit; and it helps neutralize an argument that it would create a competitive disadvantage for Connecticut businesses.

"The service sector is not competitive across state lines," Green said--restaurants, school bus companies and similar businesses can't just pick up and leave.

But Brennan said passage of the limited bill would give a foothold to a mandate on business that likely would be expanded by future legislatures.

The Working Families Party has worked for weeks to narrow the bill, largely to address the concerns of two Democratic senators, Edward Meyer of Guilford and Beth Bye of West Hartford.

The Senate passed the bill, 20 to 16, in 2008. But two Democrats who voted yes, Thomas A. Colapietro of Bristol and Thomas P. Gaffey of Meriden, have since been succeeded by Republican opponents, Jason Welch and Len Suzio.

A change of heart and a further change in membership appeared to cost supporters two more votes. Meyer and Bye were off the bill weeks ago, leaving proponents at best with 16 votes.

Meyer, who voted for the bill in 2008, was prepared to vote no this year, largely because of opposition by a YMCA in his district that claimed the bill would cost the organization $166,000. A revised version would exempt the non-profit youth group.

Bye, the only legislator whose election last year was endorsed by both the Working Families Party and CBIA, voted against the measure as a House member. She succeeded Sen. Jonathan Harris, one of the 20 senators casting yes votes in 2008.

But Bye said Thursday she was ready to vote yes, saying that compromise language removed manufacturers from the bill and addressed service workers who interacted with the public. With Meyer and Bye comfortable with the bill, Malloy began lobbying to shore up and possibly expand support.

Malloy began lobbying in the morning, beginning with phone calls made while waiting to board an airplane in Washington D.C., where he spoke at an energy conference, and continuing with several one-on-one conversations in Hartford.

The governor surprised senators by knocking on the door to their caucus room Thursday afternoon.

"Can I come in?" Malloy asked, according to an onlooker. "I'm looking for Paul Doyle. Can I talk to you for a minute?"

Doyle said the governor made a low-key pitch for the bill.

"Calm. No high pressure," the Wethersfield Democrat said. "I listened, but I still oppose the bill."

Doyle said his opposition stems not from the bill's actual provisions, but from a concern that passage would send a negative message about the state's business environment.

"It's the national reputation of Connecticut about the potential to create jobs," Doyle said. It is not a policy he wants to see Connecticut adopt before every other state, he said.

If other states had similar legislation, he might be supportive, Doyle said.

Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said a Malloy staffer approached him about changing from a no to a yes. He declined.

"Both sides are lobbying pretty hard," Duff said. "This has become a battle extraordinaire."

Two Republican senators, John Kissel of Enfield and Leonard Fasano of North Haven, are expected to join at least 16 Democrats in voting for the bill. Malloy's senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, appealed without success to a third GOP senator, Tony Guglielmo of Stafford Springs.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said the governor's lobbying was a sign that the bill was in trouble, an assertion disputed by Democratic senators, the governor's office and the Working Families Party.

"The governor made it a priority. He's pushing it hard. I don't think he has the votes," McKinney said.

Supporters said the opposite is true: He is pushing now, because it is time to close the deal.

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