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April 22, 2024

Facing deadline, CT’s legislative factory comes to life

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG Sen. James Maroney, left, unhappily listens to House Speaker Matt Ritter tell him that passage of his AI bill likely requiring overcoming gubernatorial opposition.

House Speaker Matt Ritter was about to notify the House Republican minority leader, Vincent Candelora, about his decision to call a vote next week on a Democratic priority: the long-debated expansion of Connecticut’s first-in-the-nation sick days mandate. 

Then he noticed Sen. James Maroney, D-Milford, in the House chamber.

Ritter motioned for Maroney, a former House member who has established himself as the General Assembly’s diligent, if nerdy, student of artificial intelligence, to join him on the rostrum for a blunt message: Maroney’s ambitious bill regulating AI needs a signoff from a skeptical Gov. Ned Lamont.

Well aware that industry lobbyists were arrayed against him, simultaneously praising his command of AI while arguing to the Lamont administration that his proposal could discourage economic development, Maroney was grim-faced as Ritter informed him that his road to passage had grown steeper.

The brief exchange Thursday afternoon was a public embodiment of what generally are private conversations shaping bills in the last frenzied weeks of the General Assembly’s session, determining the degree to which an unproductive session might finally bear fruit.

“There’s a lot of wheeling and dealing going on,” said Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, emerging from a meeting in the House majority office about his priority, a bill that would provide a tax exemption to disabled veterans. He scanned the chamber, looking to add to his roster of co-sponsors.

The wheels of the Connecticut General Assembly slowly began turning this week, producing some of the first floor votes on bills since the 2024 session opened on Feb. 7, a day that also began the inexorable countdown towards its constitutional adjournment deadline of midnight on May 8.

“Time is limited in any given session. I think it’s particularly acute in this one,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford.

The House and Senate were in session on Wednesday and Thursday for floor votes on easy bills — by lopsided margins, the House passed bills that would designate the lollipop as the state candy and June 1 as Barber Recognition Day — and off-the-floor talks on the harder ones.

The harder ones include the expansion of the mandate on private employers to provide paid sick days, the regulation of the nascent AI industry, and a sweeping bill addressing climate change. They are among the measures deemed to be priorities in either the House or Senate, where Democrats control the agendas with majorities of 98-53 in the House and 24-12 in the Senate.

But that control is hardly absolute. While leaders in some other states have the authority to limit debate or even bar the minority from offering floor amendments, Connecticut’s legislature has a tradition of unlimited debate, giving the minority party substantial influence.

Unlimited debate in an institution with finite time to meet means that protracted debate or an outright filibuster can kill bills. And as the days and hours left in a session shrink, the power of the minority grows. 

Candelora, a Republican of North Branford first elected in 2006, said the GOP tries to be strategic in choosing when to filibuster, a decision often based on the depth of Republican opposition to a bill’s substance, as well as whether the Democratic majority had treated them fairly.

“There are policies that we believe are bad,” Candelora said. “To what degree do we try to improve them and fix them? And to what degree do we feel like we have not been heard? And do we want to use it as a tool to make sure that the Democrats think twice before they try to push a bill over the finish line without compromise?”

Some bills will be called regardless of Republican threats to filibuster. But the competition for floor time in the closing weeks encourages bill sponsors to consider revisions that either would win some Republican support — or at least coax them to forgo lengthy debates.

On Thursday, a bill banning the possession or sale of shark fins passed unanimously with minimal debate after Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, co-chair of the Environment Committee, accepted a Republican amendment narrowing the measure.

Gresko said the goal of the bill was to protect sharks, which are long-lived and slow to reproduce, against the commercial practice of taking shark fins, then dumping the mutilated fish back in the water to die. The GOP amendment protected recreational fishing that might result in landing a shark.

Seated next to Gresko in the House was his vice chair, Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, who is trying to find the smoothest possible path towards passage of House Bill 5004, an ambitious climate change measure with 21 sections. It is heavy on incentives for industry to change, eschewing mandates and penalties.

As a House Democratic priority, the bill probably can sustain a long debate, but Palm said she is mindful that the more time required for passage of her bill means less time for bills important to her colleagues.

“I can’t put my speaker or the majority leader in a bad position in terms of negotiation,” Palm said. “But the point of this bill is to move the needle. It’s not to please people. And, if I don’t fight hard for it, I’m not doing my job.”

By her estimation, about 90% of what was reported out of the Environment Committee on a party-line vote still is in the bill, though she acknowledged that talks continue and revisions are possible based on feedback from affected industries and agencies.

No vote is likely until the week of April 29, the last full week before adjournment.

The pile-up of late business is a function of how clock, calendar and process dictate the pace of production in Connecticut’s legislative factory, an enterprise open for five months in odd-numbered years and three in even-numbered years.

Picture the process as a giant funnel: Hundreds of bills are introduced, and the first two-plus months are dedicated to their development and public vetting in a committee hearing and meeting process. 

Bills favorably reported out of the legislature’s joint House-Senate committees, which have deadlines stretching from March into early April, then go through another process before being ready for a vote in the House or Senate.

Any bill with spending or tax consequences requires a review by the two money committees: Appropriations or Finance, Revenue and Bonding. Anything that carries a penalty gets a review by the Judiciary Committee, which will vote Monday on Maroney’s AI bill and a consumer protection measure favored by Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk.

Before a floor vote, non-partisan staff in the Office of Legislative Research prepare plain language analyses of every bill, and the Office of Fiscal Analysis produces a fiscal note determining what, if any, costs would be incurred by passage. Lawyers in a third non-partisan entity, the Legislative Commissioners Office, write a final version.

Only then do the leaders screen the bills for readiness. It all takes time.

“Folks have asked why we haven’t been in earlier. This was the first week we had about 100 bills” ready for action, said Rojas, the House majority leader. “So they’re just working their way through the system. Bills gotta get referred to other committees. We have to wait for them to come back. Nonpartisan staff are continuing to do the work that they do.”

If that all sounds to be careful and systematic, there is another reality: All that work is subject to late revisions and dealmaking that can produce a “strike all” amendment — a revision that wipes out the months of vetting and revision for something that might be entirely new.

In other words, the process is political, utterly human and quite often messy.

“Laws are like sausages — it is better not to see them being made,” is one version of a line often attributed — misattributed in the view of most scholars — to the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck. The provenance is challenged, but the sentiment is not.

Last year, a first-term House Republican managed to get a sentence in the 832-page state budget that blocked a warehouse distribution project near his neighborhood in Middlebury, shedding light on the dark art of making laws and doing deals.

Last-minute agreements late in the session can lead to debates that run overnight, a practice that Ritter has worked to eliminate, creating a working relationship between the parties in Hartford that is absent in Washington. Ritter, a Democrat of Hartford, is in his fourth year as speaker.

He emerged from a Democratic caucus Thursday confident of having the votes necessary to expand the reach of Connecticut’s paid sick days law for the first time since its passage in 2011.

Passage of the original sick days law came at 3:01 a.m. on June 4, 2011 after an 11-hour debate and party-line vote in the House. The law applies only to companies with 50 or more employees, mandating they offer one hour of time off for every 40 hours of work, up to a maximum of five days a year. Seasonal and temporary workers are not covered, nor are manufacturers or YMCAs and YWCAs — conditions for support by several Democratic senators.

With every Republican opposed and four Democrats absent, the Senate voted 20-12 last year for a bill that would have eliminated the 50-employee threshold and the non-profit exemption. Any company with at least one employee would have been required to offer one hour off for every 30 hours worked.

Opposition now is unchanged from 2011, turning on concerns about the impact on employers, the state’s business climate, and its reputation as a place to do business. Lamont preferred a threshold of 11 employees, but he agreed to the Senate version last year. Ritter never called the bill for a vote after advocates rejected a compromise.

Rep. Manny Sanchez, D-New Britain, who became co-chair of the Labor and Public Employees Committee last year, said he has worked for 12 months to convince his colleagues that the mandate can work for employees and employers, even if it is opposed by Republicans and trade groups.

This year, the bill tries to ease the impact on small businesses by phasing in the lower threshold over three years, among other changes. 

“We’re going to lose a considerable number of votes on it in our caucus,” Ritter said. “But it shows that if you listen and work with people, and you give them time, and you take some of their suggestions, we can get people there.”

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