CT Examiner Goes Behind the Scenes at the Capitol as Lawmakers Prepare for the Closing Weeks of Session

April 5, 2024

From the CT Examiner:


With just five weeks left in the legislative short session, lawmakers now begin the hard part: Negotiating on certain bills and coming up with an overall budget.

Behind the scenes, there has been some political infighting but – overall – legislators will tell you that on 90 percent of the issues they agree. It’s that 10 percent – whether it be on electric vehicles, the environment or in some cases education funding – where the bickering, name-calling and hard ball negotiations take over.

CT Examiner interviewed nine lawmakers and people with inside knowledge of the goings-on at the Capitol. Four spoke on the record while five agreed to speak if their names were not used.

The budget and the fiscal guardrails

In 2017, as part of a bipartisan budget agreement, lawmakers enacted so-called ‘fiscal guardrails’ that have helped the state pay down almost $8 billion in pension debt since 2018. Nearly $40 billion in unfunded pension obligations remain. Although there are many moving parts to the guardrails, one provision, a revenue cap, requires that the state budget have a built-in cushion of – at a minimum – 1.25 percent of the General Fund.

Republicans take credit for pushing through those guardrails when they had significantly more members in the State Senate. But Republican members also, sometimes grudgingly, praise Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, for his steadfastness in supporting not only the guardrails but the spirit of the guardrails, in effect standing in the way of some of his own party’s top priorities — a source of criticism from Democrats, whether the needs are education, child care or the environment.

If the guardrails are not kept in place, Republicans are not on board, Senate Minority Leader Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield, told CT Examiner.

Now, Harding said, it’s crunchtime for the budget. But, he said, there is no wiggle room on where the GOP stands on those guardrails.

“We absolutely have to abide by the fiscal guardrails,” Harding told CT Examiner in a recent interview. “Under no circumstances would the Senate Republicans support a budget that would go outside of that. But, more importantly, we have to ensure that the spirit of the guardrails are followed as well. There might be some technical ways [to go around the guardrails], but if we are doing it outside of the spirit of the guardrails, every Senate Republican would object to it in that regard… If what I’m hearing is correct, there are going to be revenue intercepts that are going to increase the budget spending beyond the confines of the spirit of the fiscal guardrails and the spending cap. We can’t play games with the revenue intercepts, revenue caps and the volatility caps.”

One unnamed Republican told CT Examiner, “It seems like the Republicans and the governor are standing more firm – and there are some Democrats too – on being responsible from stopping, you know, new budget gimmicks from happening between now and five weeks from now.”

One unnamed Democrat told CT Examiner that, “Figuring out the budget [this session] is more difficult. The fiscal guardrails are making it much harder for us to be able to take care of the needs of our state  more effectively and that’s a concern.”

That same Democrat said the needs of the vast majority of people should be a top priority this budget season.

“We have needs in higher education. We have mental health and behavioral health needs for our children. We have dramatic child care needs with, you know, the failure to pay people enough to keep our classrooms open. There are multiple issues,” that Democrat said. “It [guardrails] affects so many areas of the work that we are trying to do in the state….. So, on some levels, we are doing great as a state. But we also need to meet the needs of the people that live here; people who are struggling financially and people who have disabled children. People who need health care and can’t afford it.”

Budget priorities

For the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, officials tell CT Examiner that pay equity is the top issue. Conservative Republicans say election integrity is something that – especially in the wake of the Bridgeport mayoral race fiasco – must be looked at this session.

Democratic Speaker of the House Matt Ritter recently told CT Examiner that, for him, and many Democrats, funding education at a higher level is a top priority.

“It’s our second year of the budget and we need to make some minor adjustments,” Ritter said. “We need to put more money into higher education and, perhaps, a little bit more to nonprofits too. “

Ritter also said that some people might be surprised to know just how little time lawmakers have to devise a budget, especially in the short session which runs from early February to early May.

“Everyone says that it seems like we have a lot of time but, you know, when you think about how many actual session days we have, it’s not a lot,” Ritter said. “It’s going to be mid-April soon and that means you have about 30 days left. And you are not in all of those 30 days so you probably have only 15 session days in reality and those hours whittle down quickly.”

One unnamed Republican said Democrats are being overly aggressive with their budget priorities.

“I’m surprised that the House Democrats are going forward with a very aggressive, progressive environmental and energy strategy and legislation,” the Republican said.

One unnamed Democrat told CT Examiner that, at the end of the day, some far-right-leaning Republicans and some far-left-leaning  Democrats often “don’t do a lot of work.” The Democrat said those members are often left out of the political process in Connecticut because they are “antagonistic forces” and they “will make your entire chamber suffer.”

State Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, is known for being outspoken and fiercely conservative in his views. He was also the only one of the 12 Republican state senators in 2023 to vote against the bipartisan budget.

Sampson spoke bluntly to CT Examiner about his frustration in being the minority party in Connecticut.

Sampson said he is under no illusion that many of his proposals won’t be voted down, but, he said, he is speaking for his constituents and will continue to carry that mantle for them.

“Serving in the minority, you know, that’s the obstacle,” Sampson said. “I don’t have the votes and, you know, the Democrats have very little desire or willingness to cooperate because they don’t have to. I mean, that’s clear. They not only have the votes to win every time, but they also make the rules.”

Sampson said Democrats voted down each of his recent six amendments that, he said, were aimed at fixing the election process in the state.

“I am surprised at their willingness to be so publicly bold about ignoring the problem,” Sampson said of the issue revolving around election integrity. “That is because, I think, that they don’t think they have to be held accountable to the people of Connecticut. I don’t think there is enough press recording the facts on these issues and it’s just not filtering down to the people of Connecticut.”

State Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, told CT Examiner that she gets frustrated, oftentimes, with those across the political aisle on issues she says everyone should be on the same page on but are not.

Case in point, Palm said, the environment and members on the Environment Committee.

While those at the Capitol will tell you that committees like Aging, Veterans and Public Health are cordial with little in-fighting among committee members, they will also tell you that Labor, Housing, Government & Administration and Elections, and Environment are the most contentious.

“On Environment, we had to have a couple of hours devoted to the belief, the erroneous belief, that climate change is not a problem,” Palm said. “So, getting a bill that people can agree on when the most fundamental function of the Environment Committee is not agreed upon is [difficult]. I mean, the chair had to remind the committee the other day that this is a pro-environment committee….. I’m frustrated with the lack of acknowledgment that this [climate] is a crisis. I care about human beings living in the world with me. So, yes, I’m frustrated with climate deniers and I’m frustrated with the waste of time, the air time that they get.”

One unnamed Democrat told CT Examiner that many lawmakers also look locally and want passage of legislation that will help their constituents. The Democrat said issues of public safety infrastructure and more educational cost sharing funds were a top priority.

Electric vehicle mandates

Early last month, Connecticut lawmakers scrapped their plans for a 2035 transition to electric vehicles. But, the issue in Connecticut is far from over.

Ritter told CT Examiner that he wants a commission to study the matter and how the state can get closer to moving toward using electric vehicles.

“We are going to be phasing out gas-powered cars in this country,” Ritter said. “I just don’t know the speed with which that will happen. But, Connecticut has to prepare, at some point, for more electric vehicles and we are not prepared for that now.

One unnamed Republican told CT Examiner that “If the governor and the majority had their ways, this [EV mandate] would have bypassed the legislature. The fact that a nearly super minority in the Senate and a nearly super minority in the House, along with millions of voices out there and not just Republican voices but bipartisan voices in the state, came together on this, is the reason we don’t, as of today, have the mandate yet. But, certainly, they are continuing to push.”

Relationships between Democrats and Republicans

Many lawmakers said the public would be surprised at how well legislators from different parties get along with each other. That is the prevailing view, although there have been incidents of infighting and blistering comments.

“I think the thing that surprises most people is just how much we actually do up here and how much is done on a bipartisan basis,” one unnamed Republican said. “You know, typically, everyone thinks that Republicans and Democrats are just at each other’s throats. You know, mirror images of what they see on MSNBC and Fox News. I think that the people on both sides would agree that the most impactful things we do are typically done on a bipartisan basis.”

Palm told CT Examiner that she is “genuinely fond” of most of her Republican colleagues, but, she said, she is in Hartford to govern.

“We have good days and we have bad days,” Palm said. “These are my work colleagues. The difference is that unlike work colleagues at, say Aetna, where you keep your political differences to yourself, here we are about passing public policy and the fundamental differences in our value systems rears it head constantly. Having said that, I do believe that my Republican colleagues ran for the same reason I did. I don’t think any of them ran to make the world a worse place. But, how we get to what a better world looks like is radically different.”

Sampson said he’s found that the Democrats he interacts with are “cordial and respectful. We have a polite way of engaging one another. We also have some pretty serious debates.”

One unnamed Democrat told CT Examiner that “There are people [Republicans] I have great respect for. But, other people that I find to be obstructionist, difficult and who seemingly don’t care about the people we represent, I have a hard time with that.”

An unnamed Republican told CT Examiner that “I think the relationships are more individual and idiosyncratic. But, I do think people get along better than I had expected.”

And, an another unnamed Democrat told CT Examiner that “As boring as it sounds, I think the most surprising thing that people would learn about what goes on up here is that we all work really well together. I know that’s not exciting, but that’s okay. I personally have strong relationships with a number of Republicans.”

Gov. Ned Lamont 

Many Republicans interviewed by CT Examiner had positive things to say about the state’s Democratic governor, who is serving in his second four-year term.

One unnamed Republican said Lamont “is viewed as being somebody who is eminently reasonable. You know, somebody who both sides can work with. I’m sure that if you are a Democrat, there’s probably more to dislike because he [Lamont] has shown a willingness to reach across the aisle. He’s actually been one of the principal players in kind of keeping the brakes on some of the more off-the-wall policies that the progressive Democrats are bringing up.”

However, Sampson told CT Examiner that the governor is not who people think he is.

“I think he’s far more progressive than people want to acknowledge,” Sampson said. “This notion that Ned Lamont is some sort of moderate I think is not true…. I think he’s going to do what’s best for Ned Lamont before he’s going to do what’s best for Connecticut or the Democrats.”

And, one unnamed Democrat said of Lamont: “He’s not good on issues of tax equity. But, I think people sort of see him as the adult in the room when it comes to holding the line.”