Campaign finance, minimum wage bills in the mix despite budget crush
It’s easy to forget the General Assembly will pass legislation this year that isn’t the state budget.
With Connecticut facing a $5.1 billion, two-year budget deficit, it comes as no surprise that lawmakers have focused on addressing the state’s fiscal woes.
Still, with a little more than two weeks remaining until the session’s June 7 adjournment deadline, dozens of bills unrelated to the state’s budget are certain to be voted upon.
Only four bills have been signed so far. Most notably, lawmakers expedited the passage of a bill that banned gay conversion therapy. The governor signed it minutes after the Senate passed it unanimously. Dozens of other bills have passed one chamber of the legislature, but have not been called for a vote in the another.
Legislative leaders say campaign finance reform and a minimum wage increase are among the contentious issues that could come up in the session’s final days, though a floor debate is more likely if an agreement not to filibuster is reached. In the final days of every session, a small minority can kill a bill simply by talking at length.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said he would be willing to run disputed bills without such an agreement, staying at the Capitol “24 hours a day, seven days a week” until the session ends, if necessary, he added.
A number of other controversial bills continue to be reviewed behind the scenes but are taking a back seat to the budget negotiations.
“I know this might sound weird, but we’re so consumed with this budget, I’m telling you, it is the end-all and be-all of what’s going on right now,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby. “And that’s part of the problem.”
“We just keep pushing, and try to do as much as we can within the time available,” Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said. “These are all items of significance, and I think we’ll make a good faith effort on all of them.”
Aresimowicz said he has confidence in his caucus’s leadership to pull off the balancing act.
“Speaking for the majority leader and I, I think we can do it,” Aresimowicz said. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said some bills are easier to tackle than others, depending on how much nonpartisan analysts say each might cost.
“All of ours have no price tags,” Fasano said. “I can get my agenda through, or a Senate Republican agenda through, without any cost.”
Here is a look, based on conversations with legislative leaders, at some of the non-budget legislation the General Assembly could take up in the final days of the session.
Campaign finance reform
For weeks, legislative leaders have said a vote on a campaign finance reform package would be coming. It hasn’t happened yet, but Aresimowicz said he expects it to come this week, though it may be a more limited version.
The speaker’s bill, which advanced to the House floor after passing a committee vote in March along party lines, has been the focal point of discussion on campaign financing for both parties.
There is little agreement among House and Senate leaders on how to tackle the many issues surrounding campaign finance reform, from banning “dark money” – independent expenditures made by groups not required to disclose the names of their donors – to avoiding significant cost overruns in the state’s Citizens’ Election Program, which provides public financing for campaigns that meet certain requirements.
Aresimowicz said his bill would increase disclosure requirements for independent-expenditure groups.
“Folks are coming in and circumventing our clean-election process, spending money on candidates, either for or against, without anybody in the district knowing who they really are,” Aresimowicz said.
House Republicans are working with Aresimowicz on the language of the bill, Republican caucus spokesman Pat O’Neil said. They are advocating for a cap on the number of personal political action committees a candidate can operate.
Even if a bipartisan agreement is reached in the House, it still would face hurdles in the Senate. Fasano said Aresimowicz’s bill is “unconstitutional” and would be struck down in court under the precedent set in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.
“If they’re really concerned about getting rid of dark money, what they need to do is go back to campaign financing that was passed under Gov. Rell,” Fasano said. “We should start there. That’s an easy fix. It’s very simple. We had it before. It was challenged in court. It upheld to the challenge. It was the Democrats who eroded it completely.”
Looney expressed support for any effort to prevent dark money from playing a role in the state’s elections – as long as it’s within the bounds of Citizens United.
He also wants to address the solvency of the Citizens’ Election Program, and remains opposed to eliminating it altogether, as some Republicans have advocated.
Looney wants to raise the contribution cap from $100 to $200 as well as increasing the various fundraising thresholds to qualify for public financing.
“For instance, for a state Senate race, currently you have to raise $15,000 in increments of no larger than $100,” Looney said. “I would support going to $25,000, but allow candidates to raise $200 – $200 being the maximum contribution – and then the grant could be slightly reduced.”
Minimum wage increase
Even more contentious has been the idea of raising the minimum wage, a proposal which appeared to have lost momentum earlier in the session. Looney and Aresimowicz both said it is worth reviving.
The bill, which would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022 and index it to the cost of living afterward, has been a non-starter for Republicans, especially in light of the state’s sluggish economy. They have argued that another minimum-wage increase would push some businesses out of the state and cause others to close their doors altogether.
Looney said the arguments against a minimum wage increase “have been completely without merit.” He said it would provide the state’s lowest-paid workers with more buying power that, in turn, would generate more sales tax revenue for the state.
With an evenly split Senate and a nearly evenly split House, however, the Republicans effectively have been able to close the door on the idea – since it would have required unwavering unity from the Democratic caucus.
Now, Looney is floating a compromise he hopes will unite his caucus.
He said he is willing to scrap his original $15-per-hour proposal and come back to the table, because, he said, passing any bill to raise the minimum wage is among his top priorities for the session’s final days.
“Obviously, we’d be willing to consider a compromise where we stop short of $15, maybe add a few years worth of increases and then go to an inflation-adjusted factor that would eventually then get to $15,” Looney said. “It might take a little bit longer, but we think that’s worth doing.”
Aresimowicz said a minimum wage increase could go to a vote in the House as early as this week.
Republicans are not any more open to the idea than they were in February. Fasano called Looney and Aresimowicz “out of touch.”
“If you want to put a nail into the state of Connecticut, go ahead and do that,” Fasano said. “It is a robust economy that increases wages, not a false economy. They continue to kill this state. And I’m shocked – I’m actually shocked – that they don’t get it.”
Until now, the bill has struggled to gain much traction in a legislative session where a number of lawmakers – and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy – have worked to ease concerns of businesses in the state. Malloy came out against the bill initially, though his office said at the time the governor remained open to other minimum wage proposals.
Legislators on the Labor and Public Employees Committee engaged in heated debate over the bill in February.
It narrowly advanced to the House floor on a 9-8 committee vote – with all of the panel’s Democrats in favor of it. A 2-2 vote from the panel’s Senate members, also along party lines, resulted in the bill failing to advance to the floor of the legislature’s upper chamber.
A handful of Senate bills have received bipartisan interest in the final days of the session.
Senate Bill 445 would remove what Fasano and Looney called the “gag order” on pharmacy benefit managers, who currently are prohibited from informing a customer if a brand-name prescription drug is more expensive than a generic alternative. It is the latest collaborative effort between Looney and Fasano.
Senate Bills 396 and 894 would institute two new oversight bodies for the Department of Children and Families: a child fatality review panel and a state DCF oversight council. Fasano introduced the bills, and Looney said he is “not necessarily opposed.”
S.B. 356 would institute executive and legislative review of certain quasi-public agency contracts. Fasano said some of these agencies – he singled out the Lottery Commission specifically – have “gone off on their own and morphed into a bureaucracy that feels no allegiance to the state.” Looney also said he was open to this idea.
Here are a few of the highlights from each caucus leader’s list of legislative priorities:
The Senate Democrats want to tackle family and medical leave, a comprehensive women’s health bill and a hate crimes bill, Looney said.
The Senate Republicans, in addition to the four bills they introduced that have already drawn bipartisan interest, are backing a brownfields redevelopment bill, called the “7/7 Program,” Fasano said.
The House Democrats are pushing to create a workforce development task force and a legislative-branch transportation authority to evaluate and approve plans developed by state Department of Transportation, Aresimowicz said.
The House Republicans are advocating for “Blue Lives Matter” legislation, Klarides said, which would create new penalties for crimes against law enforcement officers. They also are backing a bill to eliminate “good-time” credits for the few prisoners who still receive them – they were abolished in 1993 – and an opioid bill with stricter fentanyl penalties, O’Neil said.
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