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January 3, 2023

CT Capitol fully open to public Wednesday as 2023 session begins

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG Celebration in the House gallery after the passage of paid family and medical leave in 2019. The House and Senate galleries, closed since March 2020, will reopen Wednesday.

The Connecticut General Assembly begins its two-year term Wednesday with three dozen new members, significantly higher salaries, more leadership titles, and the Capitol fully open to the public for the first time since COVID-19 arrived. 

Legislative leaders say they have agreed in principle on rules requiring committees to meet in person, albeit with provisions allowing virtual participation and hybrid public hearings in which the public can testify remotely or in person.

“We think the building works better when people are talking in person and next to each other,” said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, who will begin his second term as the top House leader.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford. “Obviously, the more we can do in person means more government transparency and inclusiveness.”

The House and Senate are scheduled to convene separately at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, with lawmakers taking the oath of office to open a five-month session with a constitutional adjournment deadline of midnight June 7. 

Gov. Ned Lamont will be inaugurated at noon in the State Armory and deliver his State of the State Address to a joint session of the General Assembly in the House chamber at 1:30 p.m.

Like Lamont, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz and Attorney General William Tong also begin their second four-year terms Wednesday. Starting first terms are Stephanie Thomas as secretary of the state, Sean Scanlon as comptroller and Erick Russell as treasurer.

Democrats won majorities of 24-12 in the Senate and 98-53 in the House, but Rep. Dan Fox, D-Stamford, is in line for nomination as a judge and is expected to relinquish his seat on Wednesday, creating a vacancy to be filled by a special election.

Higher salaries — and lots of new titles
With the new terms come higher salaries for lawmakers and the six statewide constitutional officers under bipartisan legislation passed on the second-to-last day of the 2022 session.

The first raise in two decades will boost annual base pay for a lawmaker from $28,000 to $40,000, plus $5,500 in expenses for senators and $4,500 for House members. Every senator and most House members will get more, a perk of having a leadership title or an assignment as a committee co-chair or ranking minority party member.

The new salaries are $52,000 for House speaker and Senate president pro tem, $50,000 for majority and minority leaders, $49,000 for deputies, $46,500 for committee co-chairs, and $44,500 for ranking committee members.

(The governor’s $150,000 salary goes to $226,711, the same as the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Pay for the other statewide constitutional officers go from $110,000 to $189,483, the same as a Superior Court judge. Lamont is declining a salary, as he did in his first term.)

In the House, 65 of the 97 Democrats and 26 of the the 53 House Republicans will have leadership titles, not including another 26 committee co-chairs and ranking members. The maximum number of titles are set by a formula negotiated by leaders, though they have discretion to use fewer.

When Ritter’s father, Thomas D. Ritter, became speaker in January 1993, there was grumbling that he had named three deputy speakers while his predecessor, Richard J. Balducci, got by with two.

Matt Ritter will have 19 lawmakers who can preside in his place: two deputy speakers pro tem, two assistant deputy speakers pro tem, 12 deputy speakers and three assistant deputy speakers.

“There’s no question there’s a lot of titles,” Ritter said.

The profusion of titles once was seen as a workaround to raise pay for the part-time legislature.

“I understood it when the pay was less. I think now that we’ve adjusted [pay] to inflation, I don’t feel the need to give people titles and bump up their pay,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said every senator has policy or management responsibilities, given that the legislature has joint committees, with a co-chairs and ranking members from the 151-seat House and 36-member Senate.

“So everyone has leadership responsibilities, and that’s why we believe that everybody was entitled to that commensurate recommended consideration,” Looney said.

Largely absent for 3 years, the public returns

The quick spread of COVID-19 in March 2020 effectively ended the 2020 session and moved much of the legislature’s committee business and all of its public hearings to proceedings conducted by video conferencing in 2021 and 2022.

The House and Senate disagreed last session on public access, resulting in an awkward bifurcation: The first and second floors were open, but access to the upper floors was restricted. The House chamber is on the second floor, the Senate on the third.

The visitor galleries overlooking both chambers were off limits, since access to the House and Senate galleries are on the third and fourth floors, respectively.

On Wednesday,  the Capitol and adjacent Legislative Office Building will be open to the public, with masks optional.

Legislative leaders said some changes forced by COVID, such as virtual hearings and a move away from paper documents that could not be rapidly shared during remote meetings, will continue.

The ability to testify remotely at public hearings increased access to the process, and hearings in 2023 will welcome witnesses in person and by Zoom, leaders said. Testifying in person can mean distant travel and then waiting hours for a chance to talk to lawmakers for an allotted three minutes.

Kelly said remote hearings provided easier access for many, but they should only be a supplement to in-person hearings, not a replacement. Simply by showing up in large numbers, groups can demonstrate support or opposition to a bill.

“I think the building being open is a necessary step forward because there’s no place to congregate virtually,” Kelly said.

Ritter, Candelora and Kelly said they will encourage their members to conduct as much business as possible in person, which Ritter says is especially important for the large number of new members elected in 2020 and 2022.

“You’re not going to learn if you’re not there,” Ritter said. But he added that limited use of participating remotely in cases of illness or inclement weather provides welcome flexibility.

“To me it’s moving forward with technology, but not sacrificing the things that make the building work in my opinion,” Ritter said.

Looney, noting that COVID cases remain high, said he will allow his caucus members to decide if they want to attend committee meetings in person or participate and vote remotely.

“I think it’s basically still up to the members if they wanted to, again, to be there in person or to participate virtually in committee meetings,” Looney said.

Candelora said convenience to the members should not come at the expense of being available to the public.

“I do think it’s important that we’re in the building and we are accessible to the public when we are deliberating and voting on legislation,” Candelora said. “But I’m happy that there is a guaranteed in-person committee process. And frankly, if members choose to stay home and participate remotely, they do so at their own peril.”

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