Gov. Ned Lamont shares a laugh with House Republican leader Vincent Candelora, center, and Republican Rep. Holly Cheeseman and Democratic Sen. Cathy Osten after signing the bipartisan budget. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Connecticut, a small blue state that reliably fueled national campaigns on the minimum wage, paid sick days and family leave in the previous decade, was barren ground on cutting-edge labor issues in the just-completed legislative session.

In style and substance, the Democratic governor and General Assembly most often operated from the political center, exhibiting caution on major progressive issues ranging from labor to climate change to affordable housing.

The question inevitably arises: When it comes to policy, what is the political identity of Connecticut, one of the 17 trifecta states where Democrats control the office of the governor and both chambers of the state legislature?

“For good and bad, we are a bit more moderate state than I think you’d want to recognize. And for me, sometimes it’s painful,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford. “But I think, overall, it’s a good thing.”

Working from the center reflects the preferences of Gov. Ned Lamont, especially on fiscal issues, and the unwillingness of House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, and Rojas to force difficult votes on their ideologically diverse majority caucus.

Winning a 98-53 House majority last year was both a boon and challenge to Ritter and Rojas: The Democratic base now includes the wealthiest corners of Fairfield County, urban poor, and swing voters in more rural communities. It has a core of perhaps two dozen moderates.

To make it work, Ritter has preached against brinkmanship and for flexibility.

“We’ve talked about it,” Ritter said. “We’ve tried to create a culture in the House whereby people have to learn to compromise — not only with Republicans but with each other in our caucus.”

On Monday, Ritter and Rojas applauded Lamont as he publicly signed a bipartisan budget that cuts taxes on the middle class. Then they watched him present signing pens to them but also to House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. 

At a time of stark polarization in Washington and many state capitals, Republicans in the Connecticut General Assembly have engaged with Democrats, most notably on a budget that includes some GOP ideas.

“This document does reflect collaboration and input from the Republican Party. And I want to thank the governor for bringing us into the room and listening to what we had to say,” Candelora said.

“Compromise is not a dirty word,” Lamont said.

A coalition of progressive groups, including the AFL-CIO and the Working Families Party, has complained the budget falls woefully short, failing to adequately reimburse nonprofits that provide vital social services. None of the top three bills pushed by labor and its allies won passage.

A more favorable notice came on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which bemoaned that other Democratic trifecta states are wedded to a predictable formula of more spending followed by more taxes.

“The exception has been Connecticut under Gov. Ned Lamont, who is trying to break from the progressive pack with a tax cut if his Democratic Legislature will let him,” the Journal wrote on June 4, two days before the budget’s overwhelming passage.

The Journal overlooked that the budget debate was framed on Lamont’s terms when the General Assembly voted unanimously in February for emergency-certified legislation that bypassed committee review and extended fiscal guardrails adopted in 2017.

When tax revenues are booming, the guardrails cap how much can be spent and direct a certain amount of surplus funds to the rainy day fund and then to paying down pension and bonding debt.

“The e-cert of the guardrails was very detrimental to progressives this session,” said Tom Swan, executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group. “And it showed that legislative leadership and the governor were more interested in making bond holders happy than in dealing with the real problems of Connecticut.”

Lawmakers counter that the compromise yielded a more progressive tax rate and more spending for nonprofits and education than the governor initially proposed, but they did so with negotiation. Rumored revolts at Lamont’s centrist fiscal policies never took shape.

House Democrats have gained 19 seats over three two-year election cycles that made the caucus more diverse. Getting bigger and broader did not make them bolder.

Reelecting an ideologically and geographically diverse caucus tends to require compromise, consensus and incremental change.

Sarah Ganong, the state director of the Working Families, complained that legislatures in states with thinner Democratic majorities accomplished more.

“Connecticut Democrats instead allowed their most conservative members to take control of the agenda along with the minority Republican Party — all to the detriment of Connecticut residents,” she said.

Labor’s bills addressing paid sick days, predictable scheduling for service employees and a higher minimum wage for tipped workers all failed, as did long shots that would have provided jobless benefits for strikers and set stringent standards for workers at Amazon fulfillment centers.

A reluctance by advocates to compromise doomed what was widely seen as labor’s best hope for a victory in 2023: a significant update to Connecticut’s first-in-the-nation paid sick days law that passed in 2011.

The original law applied only to employers with at least 50 workers, and it exempted manufacturers and certain non-profits.

The Senate passed a bill that would have expanded sick day coverage to virtually all employers. It was too much of an expansion for a significant number of House Democrats, and Ritter refused to pressure them by calling a vote.

“They’re legislators. They got elected. They didn’t get here to get bullied by me and Jason for the next two years,” Ritter said.

Lamont had proposed his own expansion, dropping the coverage threshold from 50 to 11 employees. But after the Senate passed its version on a 20-12 party-line vote, the administration indicated the governor would sign it. 

In the House, a few compromises were floated. One would have expanded coverage in phases over several years, bringing down the employee threshold from 50 to 25 immediately, then 20 next year, 15 the year after that and so on.

“It’s really frustrating to me the more and more I see how labor and the left is very often unwilling to take wins, to get to that next thing to fight for. And you just get logjams because it can only be perfect,” said Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, a liberal who worked on passage.

The Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund took the lead on paid sick days and insisted on centering its efforts on workers who had the greatest need for coverage.

“Ultimately, you can put up what might be perceived as a win,” said Janée Woods Weber, the group’s director. “But if we’re still leaving behind people who need to be centered, who have been historically left behind, then is it really the kind of win that we’re looking for?”

Ed Hawthorne, the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, said there are times when defeat is better than compromise.

“They shouldn’t always be looking to find the middle ground,” Hawthorne said of lawmakers. “There’s things where the middle ground eats away at what the core of the bill is trying to do.”

Hawthorne said they will back with the same bills in February, the start of the next session and another opportunity to assess Connecticut’s political identity.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.