Like Connecticut, Massachusetts mandates that masks be worn by students and staff in schools and that educators, state employees and certain health care workers be vaccinated to stem the spread of COVID-19.
But the mask requirement in the Bay State was ordered by the education commissioner and the latest vaccination mandate came from the public health commissioner and Massachusetts Public Health Council, not the governor.
As the General Assembly prepares to return in special session to vote on a resolution extending Connecticut’s state of emergency until February, the Massachusetts experience is prompting political and legal questions.
Republicans (and some Democrats) are asking why Gov. Ned Lamont needs the extraordinary emergency powers afforded him to do what the administrations of Gov. Charlie Baker and others have done without them.
And Democrats want to know if the Republican opposition to extending the emergency is about what Lamont theoretically could do, not what he actually has done or is likely to do.
Those questions are likely to be the heart of the debate when the General Assembly returns before the current state of emergency — one initially declared on March 10, 2020 and periodically renewed — expires on Sept. 30.
House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said the Massachusetts approach to the pandemic may offer lessons for Connecticut.
“Massachusetts has a model we could have a conversation about,” Candelora said. “I can’t say all Republicans would support it.”
Baker made national news in June when he issued an order relinquishing his powers under the state of emergency declared on March 10, 2020 — the same day Lamont declared the emergency in Connecticut.
“Effective at 12:01 a.m. on June 15, 2021, the declaration that I issued on March 10, 2020 pursuant to the Civil Defense Act and Section 2A of Chapter 17 of the General Laws is rescinded and the state of emergency initiated by that declaration is terminated.”
Overlooked in those stories was the fact that Baker had declared a different state of emergency little more than two weeks earlier — and it remains in force.
That declaration delegates to the commissioner of public health, with the approval of the Public Health Council, the authority to mandate measures related to COVID-19 testing and vaccination and to “respond as necessary to outbreaks of the virus as they may arise.”
The 14-member Public Health Council is composed of 12 appointees of Baker and is chaired by his commissioner of public health.
House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said the Massachusetts law still does what Republicans say they find objectionable: It delegates legislative authority — the ability to enact significant health mandates — to the executive branch in an emergency.
“If you don’t delegate it to the governor, you’d be delegating it to who? To the commissioner of public health? Is that better, an unelected official?” Ritter said.
Ritter said he could better understand a debate about the executive orders issued by Lamont, such as the requirements for vaccinations (with a testing opt out) or the wearing of masks in schools, rather than an abstract one about what Lamont theoretically could do.
Candelora said the issue might be abstract but not unimportant.
“A broad declaration of power in perpetuity is what it has become,” Candelora said of the emergency.
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said that is disingenuous, given that Candelora and Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, have not identified specific executive orders as an abuse of power.
“The perception is that somehow the governor is engaging in a power grab and the Democrats in the legislature have been quiescent,” Looney said. “It is a false narrative, but it’s all they have.”
Ritter said the most extraordinary orders — closing bars and limiting the operation of restaurants and other public venues — were loosened once Connecticut’s initial surge of cases passed. With the availability of vaccines, Ritter said, similar closure orders would be rejected by the legislature.
“As much as I agree the governor needs an extension when it relates to things like vaccine requirements for people who work at a nursing home, if the governor tomorrow said we’re shutting down restaurants or gyms or barber shops again, I wouldn’t support that,” Ritter said. “I have told the governor that.”
The General Assembly passed 235 bills in the annual session that ended in June, including a bipartisan budget. Looney said Connecticut has not been dictated by one man.
When the General Assembly voted during a special session in July for the current extension of the emergency powers, it also enacted a measure of legislative oversight: Any executive order could be vetoed by a majority vote of the six top leaders of the General Assembly.
The so-called Gang of Six is composed of four Democrats — the Senate president pro tem, House Speaker and the Senate and House majority leaders — and two Republicans, the Senate and House minority leaders.
Looney and Ritter said they promised Candelora and Kelly a vote on any executive order they wish to oppose.
“You don’t like a mask mandate in schools? All you’ve got to do is let somebody know in a timely basis, and we’ll call the meeting,” Ritter said.
Candelora said he would like to see the legislature hold public hearings on the governor’s executive orders.
Looney acknowledged that some Senate Democrats asked in a recent caucus why some other states are getting by without a state of emergency. The answer, he said, is that comparing the executive powers of different states is complex, often a matter of “apples to oranges.”
Some states, such as New Jersey, have done what Connecticut has not: Passed laws granting specific new powers to the governor to manage the pandemic. In Connecticut, legislators codified in law executive orders pertaining to the ability of restaurants to sell take-out mixed drinks and to offer outdoor dining.
Paul Mounds, the governor’s chief of staff, said the governor has been careful in exercising his authority and will continue that practice.
“The administration is working under the construct of the law, which provides us the ability to put forth measures to keep the people of Connecticut safe in an emergency,” Mounds said.
When the governor calls the legislature back into special session, he will submit the list of 10 executive orders he wishes to keep in the place, Mounds said. The special session will be held on Sept. 27, 28 or 29.