Lawmakers returned to the state Capitol from the holiday break Tuesday to find more than 600 bills awaiting action: 351 in the House and 310 in the Senate. Most are destined to die.
With only seven session days planned before the adjournment deadline of midnight June 7, the window is closing rapidly on getting a debate and vote on bills of complexity that draw significant opposition.
“You probably don’t have a chance to do it at this point if you don’t do it by Wednesday or Thursday,” said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford.
“We’ve told our members that, realistically, Senate bills that are not down to the House within the matter of a couple of days, they’ll have almost no chance,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.
The must-do list is relatively short, topped by the passage of a two-year, $51 billion budget for the biennium that begins July 1. House and Senate leaders are aiming for budget votes by week’s end.
With majorities of 24-12 in the Senate and 98-53 in the House, Democrats typically control all levers of power in the General Assembly, aided by a Democratic governor who gets the last word with a signature or veto.
But the balance of power shifts to the Republican minority near a session’s end, when the legislature’s tradition of unlimited debate means a minority can kill most bills simply by talking.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, offers pithy advice to legislators seeking to get other bills called for a floor vote: “Talk less, and shrink it down.”
Shrinking a bill means shedding provisions that are controversial, a step towards negotiating a shorter debate.
Each has passed one chamber and is awaiting action in the other. The utilities bill was rewritten by an amendment sponsored by 33 of the 36 senators. The Senate passed it unanimously after midnight Thursday with limited debate.
On Tuesday, the House voted unanimously for a bipartisan bill aimed at increasing services for people with intellectual disabilities. It now goes to the Senate.
It also voted unanimously for final passage of a Senate bill that would make Connecticut among the first states to begin setting standards for the use of artificial intelligence tools.
“Unlike what they see in Washington right now, with crisis after crisis, is that we are working together in a bipartisan way,” Duff said. “We are getting the work done. People are making compromises on both sides of the aisle.”
Gov. Ned Lamont can expect to end the session with a comprehensive gun control bill he initiated, albeit with limited Republican support. It passed the House last week and awaits certain passage in the Senate.
But the status of his administration’s bills to control health costs, especially one opposed by the hospital industry, and eventually reduce the need to ship waste to out-of-state landfills were less certain.
Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, co-chair of the Environment Committee, said he expected the scope of the waste-management bill would be reduced to a measure diverting food waste from the trash now bound for incineration or landfills.
On Tuesday afternoon, the House Democratic majority caucused for more than two hours, gauging support for still-evolving bills on affordable housing and municipal pension reform, among others.
The budget, which includes the first significant cuts in income tax rates since the broad-based tax on wages was enacted in 1991, is among the bills expected to garner at least some Republican support.
“I think you’re seeing a lot of compromise product,” House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora said. “But I think probably both sides are frustrated about certain issues not being addressed.”
The bipartisan vibe had its limits.
Senate Republicans threatened to block passage of House Bill 6738, a legislative response in the House to concerns about a dramatic increase last year in the commutations of prison sentences and the inability of lawmakers to review commutation policies.
The measure strengthens the legislative oversight of the Board of Pardons and Paroles and limits the board’s independent decision-making authority by codifying parameters for commutations in state law.
It also specifies that victims of crimes be notified of a commutation application once it clears a pre-screening process, a reform intended to avoid unnecessarily alarming victims’ families. Notifications now go out upon an application, even in cases where an inmate was deemed ineligible and denied a hearing.
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said the House measure, which was negotiated by the top House Democrat and Republican on the Judiciary Committee, was insensitive to the victims of crimes.
“That’s really our primary focus here … to make sure that the guidelines and our commutation policy takes into account the victims of the crime, for which people were serving time,” Kelly said.
The Republicans complained they were not consulted by the House members.
Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, and Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, the co-chair and ranking Republican on Judiciary, accused the Senate GOP of grandstanding.
“They appear to be putting politics over policy,” Stafstrom said.
An ambitious agenda of bills sought by organized labor is certain to shrink over the next week. Bills awaiting action include measures that would provide unemployment benefits for strikers, set standards for warehouse workers and require predictable schedules for retail and service workers.
The best chance for final passage of a labor priority rests with Senate Bill 1178, an act expanding the state’s paid sick days law from employers with at least 50 employees to nearly all private-sector companies, regardless of size.
“It’s going to make a difference for working families,” said Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, co-chair of the Labor and Public and Employees Committee.
The Senate passed it on a 20-12 vote two weeks ago, and Ritter said he intends to call it for a vote on final passage in the House.