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Legislative Concepts Were Revived 115 Times

by Hugh McQuaid | Jun 11, 2014 5:30am
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Posted to: State Capitol, Transparency

Hugh McQuaid file photo

A casual observer could assume that when a bill dies during the legislative session, the concept is finished for the year. But lawmakers proved that theory wrong on 115 different occasions in 2014, according to an annual report.

The Legislative Research Office found at least 115 concepts this year that began the session as one bill only to be eventually approved by the legislature in another bill.

The number comes from an annual bill tracking report that the office puts together after each legislative session. It documents instances when a concept became law in a manner other than the traditional legislative process.

In most cases, a bill is proposed by a lawmaker or committee and assigned a bill number. That bill is given a public hearing and, if the committee approves of the idea, it’s passed on to one of the legislative chambers. Although legislation is often sent through several different committees before seeing a final vote, it typically retains its designated number.

This structure allows people to track the progress of bills they support or oppose and gives them a number to reference if they decide to reach out to their elected representatives. The problem is, bills can fall victim to a strict set of legislative deadlines or fail to garner enough support to escape a committee.

But that doesn’t stop lawmakers from reviving concepts and stuffing them into other legislative vehicles, then passing them under a different number. That practice can make the process confusing for citizen advocates.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this practice in 2014 was related to two competing proposals aimed at enacting rules on how wastewater from hydraulic fracturing will be handled if it is transported to Connecticut.

Environmental advocates were seeking an outright and permanent ban on fracking waste, which lawmakers drafted into a bill called Senate Bill 237. Meanwhile the state Energy and Environmental Protection Department supported another bill which placed a moratorium on the wastewater and gave the agency time to draft regulations for fracking waste. That bill was named House Bill 5308.

Some environmental advocates rejected the moratorium concept in HB 5308 and actively pushed for the outright ban — asking officials to support SB 237. Some even made signs referencing SB 237. However, near the end of the session, lawmakers gutted SB 237, redrafted it with a concept resembling HB 5308, then passed it.

Laura McMillan, communications director for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, said that kind of switching poses challenges for groups trying to organize people to advocate for causes. She said she often urges people to push for specific concepts rather than focus on specific bills.

“It does make communicating with the public and activists a little harder and more confusing because we understand the process but we have to translate to people . . . ‘the bill we talked about now has another number and a different name and does some of the same things, but not all of the same things,’” she said.

Although this concept swapping may be confusing to observers, many lawmakers consider it an often necessary step in the legislative process. Last year, Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney said the changes are sometimes based on evolving levels of support for a concept over the course of the legislative session.

“The session is sometimes a living, breathing organism,” he said. “A concept that does not have support in May might have broad support in June or vice versa.”

This year, by repurposing Senate Bill 237, lawmakers in the Senate were able to take action on the fracking waste issue well before the House, where Democratic lawmakers were not able to work out a deal with Republicans to pass the bill until the last hours of the legislative session.

The 115 concepts passed this year under different bills represents an increase over last year, when OLR reported 89 such instances. The Office of Legislative Research has been publishing bill tracking reports for more than a decade and the numbers have varied from year to year.

A similar report published following the regular and special legislative sessions in 2009 found 220 concepts that were passed under different bills of which three were vetoed by the governor.

OLR’s annual reports also do not attempt to quantify concepts that were passed into law without ever being raised during the committee process. Last year, lawmakers legalized the bingo-style game keno without ever raising a bill in committee. This year they repealed keno. It was one of the 115 concepts passed in legislation other than its original bill.

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