The 2023 session of the Connecticut General Assembly entered a quiet and crucial phase this week. All but the tax and budget committees have reached their deadlines for reporting bills to the floors of the House and Senate.
Complicated and contentious bills on wage and workplace standards, energy regulation, gun control, affordable housing, climate change and recycling all made the initial cut, winning favorable committee votes.
“This part of the legislative session now is very busy, but it’s mostly behind the scenes,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, a lawmaker for 42 years and the Senate’s top leader for eight.
Some committee approvals were conditional, less an endorsement of a finished product than a decision to keep them alive for further polishing, negotiation or wholesale revamping.
What happens now can broadly be described as screening, a process for assessing the policy and political implications of the committees’ output, as well as whether they have the broader support sufficient for a floor vote.
“Now it’s time to sort out and prioritize,” said House Minority Leader Vincent. J Candelora, R-North Branford. “There’s only so much time on the clock, and what are the priorities?”
Unlike Congress, where bills can gestate over two years, the life cycle of a bill in the Connecticut General Assembly is surprisingly brief, akin to the growing season in a hostile climate.
General Assembly sessions are five months in odd years, three months in even ones. On Wednesday, when the House will meet in session for only the fourth time this year, three of this year’s five months will be gone.
The constitutional adjournment deadline is midnight June 7.
The House agenda Wednesday is expected to focus on confirming 20 nominees to terms on panels such as the Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Workers Compensation Commission and the Judicial Review Council.
It’s a short week with the Capitol closed on Good Friday. The Senate will not convene until next week, after Passover and Easter.
The pace will begin to quicken as more bills ripen, vetted by committees and the non-partisan staffs at the Office of Fiscal Analysis and Office of Legislative Research. The former must produce fiscal notes for every bill, the latter a plain-language summary.
“People often raise the question: ‘Why is it you guys are in session doing marathons in the last several weeks of the session and not in session much early on?’” Looney said. “But really, it’s built into our process, because we do respect the committee process, and bills are vetted through the committee.”
Anything with a tax implication or significant cost must be voted on by the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee or the Appropriations Committee, whose respective deadlines are April 20 and 21.
While the non-partisan analysts do their work, there also is a political analysis, a less formal screening by legislative leaders to measure the broader support for a bill in their caucuses and the risks and benefits of calling a vote.
Connecticut voters maintained the Democrats’ firm control over lawmaking in November, easily reelecting Gov. Ned Lamont and electing Democratic majorities of 98-53 in the House and 24-12 in the Senate.
With the huge majorities come challenges of potentially conflicting priorities and goals: For example, House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, leads a caucus whose members represent some of the richest and poorest census tracts in the U.S.
What bills come to floor vote are the purview of Ritter in the House and Looney in the Senate.
Assessing the ramifications of those bills is a dynamic process, one that weighs whether legislation is calibrated to do too much or little, in search of a majority. Lawmakers referred to major bills sent to the floor this year as a “work in progress” and a “conversation in progress” at this time of the year.
Take the long-running struggle to increase multi-family housing in Connecticut, which lacks more than 89,000 units of housing that are affordable and available to the lowest income renters, according to estimates from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
A bill endorsed by the Housing Committee would create a process for setting regional goals for housing production, which would be updated every 10 years, and press communities to meet them. One question now in talks: Exactly how would communities be pressed?
The Labor and Public Employees Committee, which tends to be both progressive and aggressive with its agenda, sent 50 bills to the floor, some attempted in previous sessions, including measures that would provide jobless benefits for strikers and predictive scheduling for shift workers.
Predictive scheduling is a prime example of a bill whose future will rest on its reach — which businesses are covered. As written, the bill would apply to companies that employ at least 500 in the U.S. or globally, but it would also cover small restaurants that might be individually owned under the banner of a national franchise.
Some lawmakers are unwilling to include small restaurants, even if they are franchisees in a national chain.
A version passed the Senate two years ago but never has come to a floor vote in the House, where the ideologically and geographically diverse Democratic majority failed to coalesce around parameters for whom the law would apply.
“We have caucused predictive scheduling for few years now, and each time it falls short,” Ritter said.
Advocates declined deals for passage in other years, complaining the proffered parameters were too tight, he said.
Organized labor also is pushing hard this year for a labor committee bill that would revamp how the minimum wage law is applied to restaurants, where tips offset what businesses must contribute to maintain a minimum wage.
Connecticut’s minimum wage will go to $15 on June 1 under current law, but the minimums for tipped workers will stay where they’ve been for four years: $6.38 for wait staff and $8.23 for bartenders. By law, restaurants are required to pay the difference on days when tips fall short of the minimum wage.
Ritter said the strongest argument for passage is whether the state can adequately enforce that law, given a backlog in investigations into wage and hour claims of all types.
Thomas Wydra, who supervises wage-and-hour investigations at DOL, declined to speculate how frequently restaurants shortchange tipped workers but acknowledged that the backlog in investigations was significant.
Since Jan. 1, 503 wage and hour complaints were assigned for investigation, including 32 against restaurants, Wydra said. A dozen of those involved the tip credit or minimum wage for tipped workers.
“Our current wait time from the time a claim is submitted to the time it starts to be investigated is approximately four to six months, which is is a long wait time and not something that we’re happy about,” Wydra said.
The state Department of Labor’s Division of Wage and Workplace Standards currently has 17 wage enforcement agents, six wage-and-hour investigators and two open positions.
One of the 50 bills approved by the Labor and Public Employees Committee would require the state to employ no fewer than 45 wage-and-hour inspectors. Rare among the committee’s bills, it generated no written testimony in opposition.
Its fiscal impact has yet to be calculated.