Kelly: Democrat Priority Bills Include Job Killing Proposals

November 19, 2020

Article as it appeared in CT Post

The 2021 General Assembly, which will convene on Jan. 6, will likely go down in history as working during a “Zoom” session, with virtual committee hearings and socially distanced House and Senate debates.

While majority Democrats are focused on expanding mail-in ballots opportunities, creating a public option for under-insured state residents and finally creating a retail landscape for adult-use cannabis, the obstacles caused by the pandemic might prove more-formidable than opposition from the Republican minorities in the House and Senate.

With the 2020 session virtually abandoned on March 12, five days before the state’s first COVID fatality, Connecticut’s newly elected legislature will build on its technological evolution, sparsely attended floor debates and massive sanitary responses that set the tone for the special legislative sessions of the summer and fall.

And while larger Democratic majorities of 97-54 in the House and 24-12 in the Senate might appear to make it easier to work with Gov. Ned Lamont, the continuing challenge of COVID, with a fragile state economy and still-rising infection rate will create major challenges as lawmakers face a billion-dollar budget deficit starting July 1, and multi-billion-dollar projected shortfalls in the second year of the biennium.

Incoming Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said lawmakers hope that infusions of federal pandemic support will finally flow again after President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20. “We are waiting with patience and high expectation for stimulus and aid to state,” he said in a recent interview. “If we do not have additional funds coming, it makes the biennium complicated, with big deficits.”

With three new caucus leaders – Ritter, House Majority Leader-designate Jason Rojas of East Hartford, and Senate Minority Leader-designate Kevin Kelly – the flow of legislation is likely to become complicated as lawmakers head toward a June 9 adjournment, likely without a fully available coronavirus vaccine.

The main goal of the newly elected General Assembly is to craft a two-year budget effective July 1. But thousands of pieces of legislation are usually submitted by the 151 House members and 36 senators.

Not this year.

Ritter, D-Hartford, said that lawmakers will have to sharply curtail their usual bill proposals. “The committee chairs have to be mindful that if you have a 94-bill agenda, it will be hard for the public to follow,” he said.

Ritter said he wants early voting and no-excuse absentee balloting to get on the statewide 2022 ballot as a proposed change to the state Constitution. He recently participated in a news conference promising to use the state-employee insurance system to start a public option program, for individuals, small businesses and non-profits to piggyback on the state’s bargaining power for health care at lower costs, which have been exacerbated in the pandemic.

“I think health care issues are going to be front and center,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk. “The economy and jobs are really tangled together with health care, especially in light of the pandemic we’re in now.” He said that crafting two $22-billion-plus budgets is important, but major social and medical issues have become more-obvious in the eight-month pandemic.

“I would say the coronavirus has exposed a lot of the cracks that already existed in our state,” Duff said in a recent interview. “When you dive deeper, you see disparities in education and the lives of hourly workers.” He believes the police-accountability bill from the summer session likely needs to be revised slightly.

Rep. Steve Stastrom, D-Bridgeport, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said that as more police officers see what the bill actually does, there is a growing acceptance. The law includes a ban on choke holds, requires more training, and orders officers who see violations to report them or face disciplinary action.

Republicans opposed the law and used it in various ways during the recent political campaign to attack Democrats for “defunding the police,” which is not contained in the law.

“We will certainly listen to proposals, but I am not interested in going backwards,” Stafstrom said. “Frankly, Republicans tried to make this a wedge issue in the election and lost.” One item of the law, prohibiting so-called consent searches in which police ask stopped motorists if they can look through their cars, is a non-starter to revise, he said. “We’re moving toward the federal standard there on consent searches. I am unwilling to allow those to be conducted because they are a tool for racial profiling,” Stafstrom said.

Stafstrom says he will push for a so-called clean-slate bill that would allow ex-offenders to have their criminal records cleared if they stay out of trouble for a period of time, such as 10 years. A proponent of adult-use cannabis, Stafstrom said it could pass this year. A third issue is a revision to the state’s “red flag” law that allows neighbors and family members to report people with firearms who might be a danger to themselves or others.

The current law which dates back more than 20 years, allows two law enforcement officers or a prosecutor to apply to the courts for a firearm-seizure warrant. “At least a dozen other states allow a spouse or parent, even a medical professional to apply for a risk-protective order,” he said.

Stafstrom said that the state has fallen behind other states in the region on adult-use cannabis. “This is one of the places where the public seems to be further along than the legislature,” he said. “The polling data are very clear for the legalization and regulation of cannabis. This is the year the legislature needs to make this a reality.”

Ritter said that the cannabis issue depends on the eventual vote count in his caucus.

But with New Jersey’s recent passage of an adult-use law and New York likely to do it in 2021, it seems inevitable in Connecticut. “I understand both sides of the argument, but you cannot deny the reality that is readily available now, just a short drive away in Massachusetts,” Ritter said.

Incoming House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said that cannabis and the public option health care plan are an over-reach this year. “It’s important for Democrats to remember where we are right now,” he said. “Their agenda is a little tone-deaf and I am a little taken aback by it. Generally speaking, the priority for everybody is just getting through the pandemic,” Candelora said. “We have to address the impacts on education with distance learning.” He is concerned about increased drug and alcohol use, domestic violence and the strain the pandemic is putting on social services.

Kelly, R-Stratford, said the task this year is relatively simple. “We want to make Connecticut affordable and health care fits into that,” said Kelly, who has a plan to cut premiums by 20 percent without threatening the state’s nearly 49,000 jobs in the insurance industry, which he believes would be at-risk under a public option.

“We recently saw that Connecticut was dead last in job growth and personal income growth,” Kelly said. “We like our defense manufacturing. We like the fact that we are the insurance capital of the world. The Democrats want to put them out of business.”