Comptroller Kevin Lembo.
Kevin P. Lembo announcing he is exploring a run for governor.

Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo and Senate Republicans publicly argued Tuesday over whether the GOP was responsible for jeopardizing a state employees’ charitable giving program by blocking a technical bill that was unanimously approved by the House of Representatives, only to die from inaction in the Senate.

The seemingly innocuous bill comes with a backstory: Last fall, Lembo questioned whether Connecticut state employees should be able to continue directing charitable payroll deductions to the American Family Association of Tupelo, Miss., a Christian charity that the Southern Poverty Law Center monitors as an anti-LGBT “extremist group.”

But it was unclear Tuesday what role, if any, the ideological fight played in the death of a bill that typically would pass with little debate.

This year, Lembo said the vendor who administers the charitable program no longer wanted the contract, but his office needed new legislation to continue the program. One of the provisions would have limited the fee paid to the vendor to 15 percent of the gross payroll deductions. Three GOP senators, Kevin Witkos of Canton, Joe Markley of Southington and Len Suzio of Meriden filed an amendment lowering the limit to 10 percent.

“My concern was the fee. The fee was outrageous,” Suzio said.

Witkos said Lembo, a Democrat exploring a run for governor, was wrongly blaming one party for the failure by the evenly divided Senate to call his bill, while the calendar is jointly set by Democrats and Republicans.

“I understand the comptroller is running for governor and is trying to make political points any way he can. But in this situation, his accusations are flat out wrong,” Witkos said. “This legislation was on the Senate calendar since May 11 and it not being called had nothing to do with Senate Republicans.”

Sen. Kevin Witkos

Witkos said that had it been amended, the bill would have had unanimous support from Senate Republicans.

“Had it been called but not amended, it would have been discussed and voted on without any filibustering or efforts to kill the legislation,” Witkos said.

Lembo said current law has no cap on fees, so objecting to a 15-percent cap seemed odd.

“Senate Democrats assured my staff that the bill was approved to go on the consent calendar – however, in the last 10 minutes of the legislative session, Senate Democrats then informed my staff that the Republicans pulled the bill from the consent calendar,” Lembo said in a written statement. “My staff confirmed with Sen. McLachlan that they, indeed, pulled the legislation due to questions (after the legislation had sat on the Senate calendar since May 11 – following unanimous approval by both the committee and the House).

“I believe it is essential that we establish greater accountability and efficiency to this program – which is why my legislation proposed a cap on administrative fees – because there is currently no cap whatsoever. Now that Senate Republicans blocked this legislation, there is not only zero cap on administrative fees, but the entire program is in jeopardy.”

Suzio said if legislation is necessary to keep the charitable program alive, it can be taken up with the budget in special session.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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