The rules and protocols are in flux for the Connecticut General Assembly’s first effort to pass legislation in the era of COVID-19, social distancing and limits on gathering by large groups like, say, the 36-member Senate or 151-member House of Representatives.
But the agenda is set: A significant, if still evolving police accountability measure inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement; two bills extending gubernatorial executive orders issued in response to the COVD pandemic; and popular insulin cost-control legislation.
Behind-the-scenes lobbying to broaden next week’s special session has not moved Gov. Ned Lamont or legislative leaders to reconsider their handshake deal to keep a tight focus on the four bills now, while leaving open the prospect of another session in September.
“That’s what we’re going to do,” Lamont said Thursday.
A proposal by Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, to spend at least $1 billion over 10 years on economic development in new urban “renaissance zones” was shelved as too ambitious for a brief session. Organized labor was told the same about expanding workers compensation.
In a special session, the governor has a rare power. The formal call for a special session that he intends to issue today places limits on what the General Assembly can tackle, something no governor can do during a regular session.
“I think the four is a good thing to do in a special session where you have limited public hearings,” Lamont said. “If you want to do bigger things later, let’s see where we are in September. Hopefully, we can get back to a more normal course of business.”
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, confirmed in separate interviews that anything beyond the four bills will have to wait at least until September.
Amending the workers compensation law to create a presumption that COVD-19 contracted by an essential worker was work-related, at least in the first two months of the pandemic when the state was largely shut down, is a good bet for the fall, Looney said.
“This issue is not going away, when we try to tackle it in July or September,” said Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, the co-chair of the Insurance and Real Estate Committee. “There’s always going to be a need to make sure that the workers we asked to stay on the front lines while we stayed home are taken care of.”
Scanlon said 922 people have filed workers’ compensation claims related to COVID, with only 43 cases going to a hearing. It is impossible to easily discern how many claims are substantive, since some workers may have filed if exposed simply to preserve their rights.
Less certain are the prospects in September for consideration of legislation attacking local zoning that has contributed to Connecticut’s housing segregation by banning multi-family housing in two dozen communities and limiting it in others.
Ritter, whose grandmother was prominent in a movement to desegregate Hartford’s suburbs, acting as a straw purchaser for Black buyers spurned by white sellers, told advocates this week they need to broaden their coalition before making a significant push for legislation.
He reminded them that the General Assembly overrode Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s veto in 2017 of a bill that weakened the provisions of a law that limited the ability of local zoning authorities to deny affordable housing proposals in communities with little or no affordable housing.
Local control, especially over zoning and schools, are potent political issues in Connecticut’s overwhelmingly white suburbs. Republicans already are planning campaign messages reinforcing the opposition of the GOP to anything undermining that control.
No House Republican voted to uphold Malloy’s veto in 2017. Only one current Republican member of the Senate did so. That was Sen. George Logan of Ansonia, the only African-American member of the GOP caucus.
McCrory could not be reached for comment on his “renaissance zone” bill. Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, who has worked on the measure with McCrory as co-chair of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, said the concept is an effort to counter “decades of race-based disinvestment and discrimination.”
“Many people believe that’s as important as police accountability reform legislation,” Fonfara said.
Lamont originally wanted only two bills on the agenda for July.
One is a police accountability measure that became inevitable soon after video of a police officer killing a handcuffed and prostrate George Floyd in Minneapolis generated protests across the U.S.
The other is a bill that he sees as essential to protecting democracy and public health during the COVID pandemic. It permits anyone who feels unsafe going to the polls to vote by absentee ballot in November.
Using the sweeping powers available to him since declaring a public health emergency in March, Lamont signed an executive order permitting no-excuse absentee voting in the August 11 primaries. But the emergency declaration ends on Sept. 9, leaving him unable to extend the order to November.
Another of the four bills is related to COVID. It would extend until next year an executive order expanding insurance coverage of tele-medicine during the pandemic.
The fourth on the agenda is a revised version of what was Senate Bill 1 during the regular 2020 session. It would cap co-pays on insulin.
Legislative leaders are scheduled to meet Monday to adopt rules and procedures for the special session. The State Capitol will be closed to the general public and lobbyists, though open to the media.
The House intends to convene Thursday and take up all four bills. The Senate will come in the following week.
House members may vote from their offices in the Legislative Office Building. Access to the chamber will be choreographed, with a limited number of legislators and staff allowed in the chamber at one time.
CT-N, the public affairs network carried on cable systems and available online, will broadcast the proceedings.
The Judiciary Committee is holding a virtual informational hearing on the police accountability bill today at 10 a.m., with a 12-hour limit set. Witnesses will speak via Zoom.
A copy of the draft bill and instructions for testifying are available on the Judiciary Committee web site.