Republicans in the General Assembly registered dissatisfaction Thursday with two of Gov. Ned Lamont’s agency heads, casting largely symbolic votes against the confirmations of Katie Dykes and Michelle Gilman.
Dykes, the commissioner of energy and environmental protection, had come under fire for enforcing a bottle deposit law as written, as opposed to how lawmakers described their intentions in debate.
Gilman, the commissioner of administrative services, angered Republicans during her confirmation hearing for failing, in their view, to adequately explain what her agency was doing to ensure school construction money was properly spent.
The House confirmed both commissioners after brief debates.
The House voted 105-36 to confirm Dykes after passing a bill that corrected the legislature’s error in a 2021 law that expanded the types of cans and bottles that carry a deposit as of Jan. 1 of this year.
During the debate in 2021, legislators said there was no intent to extend the deposit law to hard seltzers with spirit alcohol, while hard seltzers that are malt beverages are covered. They made no effort, however, to define hard seltzers in the law.
“It’s not the commissioner’s fault,” said Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, who worked for the bottle bill’s passage in 1978 as an environmental activist, then was elected to the House two years later.
As is the well-established practice of courts, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection relied on the plain language of the law and disregarded the verbal “legislative intent” as irrelevant.
“I think that the legislature was clear through legislative intent when they drafted the language,” House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, told reporters before the vote. “I think the department saw an opportunity, and they stuck their foot in that door and opened it up to expand the bottle bill to things that we did not intend to.”
The fix enacted Thursday was simple, requiring the addition of a dozen words to the bottle law: “‘Carbonated beverage’ does not include any product that contains wine or spirits.”
The rationale for exempting wine and spirits is that the industry does not have the infrastructure for redeeming bottle and can deposits that have been developed by beer and soda distributors.
Mushinsky said all beverage cans should be covered by the deposit law, but the wine and spirits industry should be given two years to prepare.
Every Democrat and 14 Republicans voted for Dykes’ confirmation including Candelora, the House GOP leader.
The House confirmed Gilman on an 89-48 vote, with one Democrat, Rep. Minnie Gonzalez of Hartford, joining 47 Republicans in opposition. Candelora was one of three Republicans voting for passage.
Rep. David Yaccarino, R-North Haven, the ranking House Republican on the Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee, said he found Gilman less than responsive during her hearing.
Gilman was appointed as commissioner of administrative services after a federal investigation of school construction grants, which comes under the purview of her agency, came to light.
Local officials from several towns alleged that the former director of the school construction office pressured them to hire specific contractors for school projects.
The administration ordered an audit of the grants, but it did not contact the local officials.
Gilman told lawmakers that municipal officials were not questioned because the scope of the audit was focused on reviewing the documentation that the state collects after each school construction project is completed.
Yaccarino said he has been impressed by the quality of Lamont’s appointees but said he should have opted for “a fresh start” at DAS at the start of his second term in January.