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The legislative session starts Wednesday. Here's how the pandemic is impacting operations and policy priorities.
The Day - 1/3/2021
Jan. 2—Going into the 2021 session of the Connecticut General Assembly, legislators will grapple with prioritizing bills that are urgent because of the COVID-19 pandemic, revisiting legislation from 2020 that didn't go anywhere because of the pandemic and passing a biennial budget.
But due to the impacts of virtual meetings, some legislators have noted they don't expect — or want — very many bills to be introduced this year.
Incoming House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, doesn't think it will be feasible to have as many bills as normal and said the legislative process will move even slower because of remote work.
Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said we shouldn't see the usual number of bills submitted, and legislators must concentrate on what's important. She said she and her caucus feel "the focus should be on COVID recovery, from a public health point of view, from an economic point of view, from a mental and spiritual health point of view."
Ritter and Cheeseman shared their thoughts on legislative logistics and priorities with The Day this past week, as did Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven; Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague; and Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton.
The session starts Wednesday, and the plan is for senators and representatives to be sworn in outside the State Capitol building.
Ritter said committee meetings and public hearings will happen virtually on Zoom, but his hope is that as more people get vaccinated and the weather gets warmer, business will become more normal.
Outside of Zoom, CT-N will be covering some but not all hearings, and Osten said others will be on YouTube. Channels have been set up on YouTube to correspond with different hearing rooms.
Ritter said even with committees meeting over Zoom, they still will have to reserve room space, because that will prevent too many committees meeting at once. He said legislators must have their video camera on to vote, and if their video isn't working, they'll have to go to the Capitol.
Lawmakers will have to vote on opening day to adopt the rule changes so the legislature can operate virtually. For example, Ritter said legislators have had to physically sign proposed bills, but a proposed change would create a mechanism to do this electronically.
Somers said some legislators "are very concerned about going to a completely virtual legislature, because it really infringes and dampens and lessens the ability to have a true democracy."
Legislators often have meetings for different committees they're on happening at the same time, so Somers questioned how members can run from one meeting to the next on Zoom. She also questioned how to hold votes open on Zoom and how to "ensure legislators are not just putting up a picture and tuning out." She would like to see a hybrid approach, where at least committee leaders are in person, spread out.
Somers said residents and other legislators have asked why legislators are reconvening now, and what role they'll play, considering Gov. Ned Lamont's emergency powers run until Feb. 9.
Cheeseman expressed concern about the digital divide, noting that many people — particularly those who are older — don't have a computer or smartphone. She said it would be wrong if people are precluded from weighing in because they don't have access to technology.
Ritter said his priority is "the budget, the budget, the budget." On odd years, the General Assembly is in session from January through June and passes a biennial budget, while on even years, the session is from February to May.
Ritter said there will "be a lot of wait and see" on the budget, because it depends on the impacts to the state of the $900 billion stimulus bill Congress just passed and there won't be a real sense of revenue projections until April.
Looney noted the governor will submit his proposed budget in February and then the Appropriations Committee — of which Osten is co-chair — will kick into action.
Regarding pandemic-related bills, Looney said he thinks the legislature will be looking at mental health needs, and at issues related to health insurance and access to quality care.
"In addition, I think we're going to be looking at things through a social justice focus, and how state policies affect racial justice matters, social justice matters, the huge gap between rich and poor in our state," Looney said.
He also expects a debate on legalizing cannabis, and hopes to legalize sports betting. He noted Lamont said he isn't proposing a bill on tolls this session.
Ritter said some of his priorities include amending the state Constitution to provide for early voting and no-excuse absentee balloting, and lowering health care costs, particularly on the exchange.
Asked about perennial topics such as marijuana legalization and sports betting, Ritter commented, "Would I vote for those? Yes. Are they my number-one priorities? No."
Cheeseman, an opponent of recreational marijuana legalization, thinks this issue is too important to do virtually, that it "deserves scrutiny in a regular session where the public can have access to the legislature."
Ritter thinks Connecticut should join other states and get rid of the religious exemption for childhood vaccination requirements. This has come up before: Lawmakers heard nearly 24 hours of public hearing testimony in February.
Looney, who thinks exemptions should be for only health-related reasons, thinks COVID-19 will provide momentum for the bill's passage, because "for the first time in a long time, we're confronted by a deadly virus for which there was no vaccine but now there is one."
Somers thinks "those types of super controversial bills," such as the religious exemption, should be put to the side "and we should focus on the things that are most critical in public health during a pandemic."
Local senators share priorities
The portal for legislators to start submitting bills opened last month. Once bills for 2021 are available online, the public can visit the CGA website, www.cga.ct.gov, to search for bills by keyword or by subject, and to track bills to get an alert when a certain bill changes status or when a public hearing is scheduled.
Aside from the budget, Osten said the Appropriations Committee will be working on a big piece of legislation on teachers' retirement.
A big priority for her and others in eastern Connecticut is passage of a gaming modernization bill that would allow sports betting.
In December, Osten outlined proposed legislation to create a standing Office of Pandemic Preparedness and a Medical Manufacturing Pipeline, similar to the Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative.
Osten also referenced several Native American issues she's working on: She wants to see Native American history incorporated into school curriculum, the John Mason statue removed from the Capitol Building and put in a museum, the phase-out of Native American mascots, and a retaining wall for a Schaghticoke burial ground that is underwater.
She also said she's putting in legislation to look at mental health in the prison population, saying she wants to assess the amount of time served as a portion of the sentence and the recidivism rate — or the likelihood to be arrested and imprisoned again — for people with mental health conditions, compared to those without.
Both Osten and Somers, a ranking member of the Public Health Committee, said their top priorities are extending telehealth.
Somers also would like to see medical assistants be able to administer vaccines; Connecticut and New York at the only states that don't allow this.
Her other public health priorities include developing a physician recruitment program, limiting liability for health care workers treating COVID-19 patients with off-label drugs, improving access to funds for long-term care facilities and repealing the tax on personal protective equipment.
Somers said she is also interested in various environmental issues this session, such as implementing a deposit on nip bottles and providing resources to rural towns for enforcement of safe recreation on lakes.
Somers also said she is certain we will see bills that try to address issues in the police accountability bill that passed last summer.
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