As legislature winds down, key bills likely to die on the vine [Rep-Am]

May 18, 2015

Article as it Appeared in the REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

HARTFORD — Bills are dropping now like withered spring blossoms at the state Capitol — to the disappointment of frustrated supporters and the delight of determined opponents.

With less than three weeks from the legislature’s adjournment, the majority and minority sides of the aisle are taking advantage of the rules and the running clock to block legislation that managed to get out of committee.

Sen. Kevin D. Witkos, R-Canton, lashed out against the Labor and Public Employees Committee for spiking legislation intended to hold faculty at state universities and colleges accountable for criminal wrongdoing.

The bill proposed to require criminal background checks of faculty members being considered for promotion. It also allowed universities and colleges to discipline faculty for engaging in criminal conduct.

“This legislation is about protecting our students. Indiscretions by professors should not be ignored,” said Witkos, the ranking Senate member on the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee.

The bill came out of higher education committee on a 15-3 vote. The Public Safety and Security Committee later backed the measure 22-3.

Despite the bipartisan support, the Democrat-led labor committee killed the bill one day last week after the Senate had referred the legislation there. The committee adjourned without voting on the measure, sealing its doom.

“To not even take a vote on the bill is unacceptable,” said Witkos, who represents part of Torrington.

Other bills are meeting their demise in the same fashion.

It happened to a labor committee bill to protect immigrant workers for exercising workplace rights and wage protections on the same day that the committee scuttled the faculty accountability legislation that Witkos co-sponsored.

The immigrant rights bill was important to the labor committee, said Rep. Peter A. Tercyak, D-New Britain, its House chairman.

This was not so for the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee. The committee adjourned its meeting last Tuesday without voting on the labor committee’s bill.

“Now is the time good things die,” a disappointed Tercyak said.

The torpedoing of the immigrant rights bill shows how even top leaders lose bills.

Senate President Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, not only co-sponsored the bill, but personally testified for the legislation before the labor committee.

“My understanding is that Republicans threatened to filibuster the bill,” said Adam Joseph, a Looney spokesman.

There are lots of avenues available to the party in charge to block bills. Filibustering is the opposition party’s best shot to block legislation.

Filibuster threats become more credible as committee deadlines and session adjournment dates draw closer. The legislature’s tradition of unlimited debate adds more credibility.

At this time of the session, a committee referral can be a death sentence for a bill.

Tercyak had been waiting on the faculty accountability legislation to get to the labor committee. He said he had told his Senate co-chair earlier in the session that he was going to kill that Senate bill.

His opportunity came when the Senate finally referred the legislation to his committee on May 5.

After the referral, Tercyak said he had been dodging Rep. Roberta B. Willis, D-Salisbury, the House chairwoman of the higher education committee, to avoid a confrontation over the bill.

He said he decided to block the bill because he believes promotions and discipline are subjects of collective bargaining between faculty unions and institutions of higher education.

“There is a reason that the rules say you will only look at their academic work and their classroom work, and it is just about making sure we choose the people who are going to be best at the front of the classroom to be part of the faculty, and not the people who offend us the least, or who don’t please us as much as some other people,” Terycak said.

Some bills that die in committee have a way of coming back, but the odds are against that happening.

Last session, the content or concept of 115 bills were incorporated into legislation that later became law, including many bills that had died one way or another.

Witkos is working to revive the faculty accountability legislation

“I am not giving up on this bill,” he said.

Looney is also holding out the possibility of reviving the bill to protect the workplace rights of immigrant workers.

“This is an important bill, and we have seen that employees can be intimidated into not reporting violations. It is entirely possible that we could bring back the bill before the end of session,” Joseph said.

There are still more bills on the House and Senate calendars that are awaiting a quiet end.

There will be no committee referrals. The legislation will just sit on the calendars until adjournment day comes, and then it is all over — until possibly the legislature’s next annual session.

The Senate even has a kind of death row for bills. It is called the foot of the calendar. Bills placed there rarely get a reprieve.