The 2023 session of the Connecticut General Assembly lurched to its constitutionally mandated end at midnight Wednesday, capped by votes on a hastily assembled omnibus bill that offered a last ticket to passage for stalled measures, including a major campaign finance bill.
House Bill 6942 placed a necessary last piece of business — a bond package authorizing borrowing for school construction and other capital needs — in a 274-page bill that also would double public financing grants for gubernatorial campaigns, among other things.
Negotiated throughout the day, the freshly drafted bill came with a jaw-breaking, all caps title that reflected its broad and eclectic contents:
“AN ACT AUTHORIZING AND ADJUSTING BONDS OF THE STATE AND CONCERNING GRANT PROGRAMS, STATE CONSTRUCTION RELATED THRESHOLDS, SCHOOL BUILDING PROJECTS, RESOURCES AND SUPPORT SERVICES FOR PERSONS WITH AN INTELLECTUAL OR DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITY, FAILURE TO FILE FOR CERTAIN GRAND LIST EXEMPTIONS, ELECTIONS, AND OTHER ITEMS IMPLEMENTING THE STATE BUDGET.”
It was not ready for debate until 8:18 p.m. and sped through both chambers in an hour, seeming to set the stage for validating a claim made hours earlier by House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, that the sprint to midnight on the last day would include “the most fascinating three or four hours in Connecticut politics.”
The reference to elections in the title was a provision aimed at restoring the relevance of public financing to Connecticut’s gubernatorial campaigns after two elections dominated by wealthy self-funders, Gov. Ned Lamont and his Republican opponent, Bob Stefanowski.
The bill would double the grants available to qualified gubernatorial candidates participating in the voluntary Citizens’ Election Program, providing $3.2 million for a primary, $15.4 million for the general election and $806,875 for a new pre-convention grant.
Lamont spent $25.7 million to win reelection last year in a rematch with his 2018 opponent, Stefanowski, who spent $14.5 million. Had they opted for public financing, they would have been limited to about $8 million — roughly the amount Lamont spent on television advertising in the last five weeks of the campaign.
The bill also would raise the contribution limit to the Democratic and Republican state central committees from $10,000 to $15,000.
Without explanation, the Senate had failed the previous night to pass Senate Bill 226, which addressed the public financing issues that had bipartisan support.
Contents of House Bill 5001, a bipartisan measure to expand resources and support services for residents with intellectual or developmental disabilities was part of the omnibus bill, an effort to save the broadly supported measure from inaction in the Senate.
It was struck from the omnibus bill when Senate leaders concluded they would have time to vote on HB 5001. Passage was unanimous. It came at 11:52 p.m.
But there was less of the frenetic deal-making typical in the last hours of the annual session, particularly in the House. By 10 p.m., the House had little to do as it waited for the Senate to send down bills.
While difficult to negotiate and produce, the omnibus bill was quickly passed by the House and Senate with minimal debate. The House passed it on a vote of 145-2, with Republicans Anne Dauphinais of Killingly and Gale Mastrofrancesco of Wolcott opposed. Senate debate was barely five minutes. It passed, 35-1, with Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, opposed.
The General Assembly began its last day with 117 Senate bills awaiting final action in the House and 172 House bills awaiting final action in the Senate. With final passage of a tax-and-spending package the previous day, there was little pressure on lawmakers to deliver on the remaining bills.
The Senate struggled until 9:39 p.m. to pass a single bill, a watered-down version of Senate Bill 998, a measure that affordable housing advocates once hoped would be a vehicle for significant zoning reform.
Republicans filibustered for nine hours, not relenting to a roll call vote until after the House sent the omnibus bill to the Senate. The measure passed, 23-13, largely on party lines.
Once the the Senate was done with the housing bill, it quickly picked up the pace, packing a day’s work in the final two hours of the session. At 10:04 p.m., the Senate voted 34-1 to pass House Bill 6930, a measure crafted by Comptroller Sean Scanlon after talks with local officials and unions to reform municipal pensions.
By changing how cost-of-living increases are calculated and by re-amortizing the unfunded liability of the municipal pension fund from 17 to 25 years, participating municipalities are projected to save $32.3 million in the coming fiscal year and $843 million over the next three decades.
The final bill passed by the Senate was House Bill 6888, a measure addressing the pre-arrest diversion of children, the makeup of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee and plans for transitioning children in the Department of Corrections’ custody to the custody of the Judicial Branch.
A 26-10 roll call vote was completed at 11:59, the last minute before the constitutional adjournment deadline. Onlookers outside the chamber applauded.
The House operated at a more deliberative pace throughout the day, opening with final passage of Senate Bill 1, referred to as the education transparency bill.
House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, told reporters in the morning that the must-do list in the House was short — primarily the school construction bonding package, Senate Bill 1 and an environmental justice bill.
On the final day, when time is short and the tradition of unlimited debate can be used to talk any bill to death, little can be done without the consensus of both parties. But Ritter, Rojas and House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, have been adept at sidestepping partisan roadblocks.
“We continue to have conversations with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle, and we’re able to strike deals,” Rojas said.
“The last day’s interesting, right?” Ritter said. “Everybody’s equal.”
“Obviously, we all know this the make or break day,” Candelora said.
The omnibus bill adopted Wednesday night had a provision exempting small towns from the reach of the state’s environmental justice law in another bill, Senate Bill 1147. The reason: Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, said the measure would be onerous to his small community, which is considered an environmental justice community.
With the deletion promised in the omnibus bill, the House passed the measure with little debate.
At least twice Wednesday, opposition by Republicans caused the House Democratic majority to suspend debates on bills without a vote.
Senate Bill 1086, a bill providing protections against “coerced debt” — that is, debt that was incurred in a victim’s name by an abusive domestic partner — unanimously passed the Senate a month ago but foundered Wednesday in the House.
Sen. Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford, a sponsor, failed to persuade Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, to allow a vote. Fishbein, a practicing lawyer, said he was sympathetic to the goals of the bill, but concluded it did not mesh with existing divorce law.
A seemingly mundane bill, Senate Bill 1023, dealing with the operations of probate courts, ran afoul of Mastrofrancesco, a conservative who objected to a provision that would have had court documents conform with a state law adopting gender-neutral language, such as “birth parent” over “mother.”
“I’m highly offended by the terminology that’s in this bill as a woman and as a mother,” Mastrofranceso said. “We are manipulating our statues to push an ideological, a progressive agenda, a theory that does not exist.”
Debate was suspended while an amendment was prepared. The term Mastrofrancesco found offensive was removed, and the bill would clear both chambers by midnight.
CT Mirror staff writer Jaden Edison contributed to this report.