Key bills that passed and faltered during the 2021 legislative session
The 2021 legislative session ended at midnight Wednesday. As usual, some folks came out of the process happy. Others are already plotting their strategies for the special session that could come as early as next week.
The impact of these decisions will take years to determine. Here’s a rundown of significant bills that passed and some that didn’t.
Criminal justice reforms
The first full session after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis in May 2020, Connecticut legislators passed a slew of bills aimed at reforming the state’s justice system.
They passed a measure that automatically clears certain convictions from a person’s record if they stay crime-free for seven or 10 years. They approved a bill that curtails the Department of Correction’s use of solitary confinement. They gave final passage to a measure that makes it free for the incarcerated to call their loved ones. They expanded the definition of domestic violence to include “coercive control,” heeded a task force‘s recommendations and attempted to diversify the state’s jury trials and broadened the crimes for which people can ask the court to vacate if they committed that crime while they were a human trafficking victim.
“I don’t think there’s a piece of the criminal justice process that we didn’t touch this year in some way, shape, or form,” said Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee. “The tough on crime era and the failed War on Drugs has left a lasting scar on our state, and we are righting some of those wrongs by what we did this year.”
Environment and climate change
More than 40 bills on environmental issues – most of them related to climate change – were proposed during the session, but relatively few made it through.
One of the casualties was the Transportation and Climate Initiative. Proponents called it the most important climate change legislation in a decade. Opponents called it a gas tax. It would allow the state to develop its plan to cut carbon emissions in the transportation sector as part of a large regional strategy. Gas prices would likely go up slightly as a result. It didn’t get a vote in either chamber, but advocates, who say the votes for passage are there, are pushing to include it in the upcoming special session.
Another emissions bill that could wind up in the special session would start a process to tighten emissions on medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. It passed the Senate but was not taken up in the House.
Another major climate bill that never made it to a vote would have put in statute an existing executive order mandating a zero-carbon electric grid by 2040 and require landlords to provide energy cost information to prospective renters.
One significant bill that passed addresses climate change adaptation. It increases the scope of the Green Bank to include environmental infrastructure. It allows all municipalities to establish stormwater authorities to collect funds for climate adaptation and resilience projects, and it expands municipal flood and erosion control boards’ authority to climate projects.
Several bills designed to begin modernizing the state’s failing waste disposal infrastructure were offered, and two big ones passed. One attains a long-elusive goal: expanding the bottle bill. It adds many non-carbonated beverages to the list of returnable containers and doubles the deposit to 10 cents beginning in 2024.
Another expands the number of businesses that will be required to have their food waste composted if they are within 20 miles of an authorized compost facility.
But a bill that would have required producers of tires, smoke detectors and certain gas canisters to provide extended responsibility for disposing them did not get a vote.
After years of false starts, the General Assembly succeeded in passing a bill repealing Connecticut’s religious exemption from mandatory school vaccinations. As a growing number of students claim the religious exemption, proponents have cited concerns for immunocompromised children who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. Under the new law, the religious exemption will be erased starting Sept. 1, 2022. Students in kindergarten through 12th grade who currently claim the exemption will be allowed to continue using it for the remainder of their academic careers, while those in pre-kindergarten, day care or who are new to the school system will no longer qualify.
Lawmakers also adopted broad health equity reforms, including declaring racism a public health crisis, requiring better data collection on race and ethnicity in health care, mandating that hospitals conduct implicit bias training for employees who provide direct care to pregnant or postpartum women, requiring that the public health commissioner study the development of a recruitment and retention program for state health care workers who are people of color, and directing the health department to explore whether to create a certification process for doulas.
Other ambitious health care reform efforts, however, failed to cross the finish line.
Legislators failed again this year to pass legislation that would expand government-sponsored health insurance. The latest version of the public option bill would have extended that coverage to small businesses and nonprofits, and also expand access to Medicaid and add an assessment on insurance carriers that would fund additional subsidies on the state’s health insurance exchange.
Another bill that would let terminally ill patients access medication to end their lives did not come up for a vote in either chamber. Under the proposal, an adult patient with a terminal illness — having six months or less to live — would have been able to access lethal drugs by making two oral requests at least 15 days apart, and one written request. A physician would have prescribed or dispensed the medication, and the patient would have self-administered the drug.
The legislature considered several ambitious reforms that aimed to address the state’s longstanding issues surrounding segregation and housing insecurity.
Legislation that would have made it easier for those with Section 8 housing vouchers to use it more places — as well as allow housing authorities the ability to develop public housing in neighboring suburban towns — was not approved, despite the threat of the federal government forcing Connecticut to make the change.
In an effort to respect local control, but not allow towns to ignore their obligations under the Federal Fair Housing laws, another bill that failed to win approval would have left it entirely up to municipalities to determine how to provide their so-called “fair share” of affordable housing but would have attached strict enforcement mechanisms if a town’s plan or implementation was not ambitious enough.
Language was scrapped from another bill that would have required towns to allow the construction of multi-unit housing around some train stations and suburban towns’ commercial centers. Instead, legislation was signed by the governor that would require towns to allow single-family homeowners to convert parts of their dwellings or detached garages into so-called accessory dwelling units, nicknamed “granny pods,” without needing special permission from local officials — but it allows towns to vote to opt out. The bill places limits on how many parking spaces a new home or apartment must have — but also allows towns to vote to opt out. That bill also strikes current state law that requires zoning regulation to consider the “character of the district” with “physical site characteristics” that local officials must prescribe.
When the bill passed the house, House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said it was “painfully incremental” because it had been scaled back so much.
In the wake of the pandemic that caused trauma in the lives of so many children — and with many more children showing up in hospital emergency rooms in crisis — scaling up social-emotional learning in schools and addressing children’s mental health was a top priority this legislative session.
Legislation establishing suicide prevention training in local health departments would be administered by the Office of the Child Advocate and the Youth Suicide Advisory Board once every three years starting next July if Lamont signs Senate Bill 2. The legislation would also implement mental health training and education for health care professionals starting next year and would allow K-12 students to take up to two mental health days during the school year.
An influx of state and federal aid to help local school districts and cities and towns respond and recover from the pandemic is also headed for municipalities.
A bill that would allow Connecticut college athletes to profit off their names, images and likenesses, as well as make money through endorsements and hire an agent, passed out of the General Assembly this session and is awaiting the governor’s approval. If signed into law, Connecticut would join several other states with similar legislation in place, but a pending decision from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) could also create a nationwide policy.
Lawmakers also adopted bills focused on college campus safety this session. Legislation that would require college campuses to distribute a sexual misconduct survey to students every two years is headed to Lamont’s desk and would establish a council that would be required to submit a report about survey results to the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee. The measure would also provide amnesty to those who report an assault so that they will not be subject to disciplinary action for violating a college’s drug or alcohol policy. Another bill heading to Lamont would require colleges and universities in the state to include campus accidents resulting in death or serious physical injury in each institution’s annual crime and safety report.
A bill to protect owners of homes with crumbling foundations passed in the final days of the session and awaits Lamont’s signature. Countless Connecticut homeowners have suffered the costs of living in houses with faulty concrete, but this bill will ensure the integrity of future foundations.
The bill makes permanent the Connecticut Foundation Solutions Indemnity Company (CFSIC), a captive insurance company created to distribute money to homeowners with faulty foundations as a result of the mineral pyrrhotite. The CFSIC will also study the damage related to pyrrhotite in nonresidential buildings, an attempt to keep track of further incidences of decay.
The legislation will direct up to $175,000 from the Healthy Homes Fund for the CFSIC study’s expenses, and it authorizes the commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to adopt regulations for the testing of pyrrhotite in aggregate held in quarries.
Concrete aggregate quarries in the state will submit an annual operations plan to the state geologist and DEEP commissioner, and they will also submit a geological source report (GSR) every four years to keep tabs on the status of the concrete that is used.
The bill removes a five-year maximum on reduced assessments for properties made with abnormal concrete. Homeowners will benefit from the reduced assessments, and they can rest easier knowing some of the burden has been lifted from their shoulders.
A bill legalizing sports betting and online casino games and lottery sales in Connecticut won final passage, an effort to boost state revenues and help casino employment rebound in the state’s struggling southeastern corner.
Passage came after a relatively brief debate, an anticlimactic ending to a multi-year push to expand the customer base of Foxwoods Resort and Mohegan Sun, two tribal casinos squeezed by competition in New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts and a temporary closure forced by COVID-19.
“This has been a long and strange trip to get to this point,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk.
CT Mirror reporters Jenna Carlesso, Kelan Lyons, Jan Ellen Spiegel, Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, Zach Flores, Mark Pazniokas and Adria Watson contributed to this story.
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