Short Session: Progress or Setback?
For years, the General Assembly has been trying to abolish the death penalty, legalize medical marijuana, and allow both Sunday liquor sales and same day voter registration. This year they did all of that in addition to an omnibus education reform bill.
And all in a short session.
At the urging of an impatient and ambitious governor, Connecticut’s Democratically-controlled legislature celebrated their accomplishments Wednesday as they prepared to retire or run for re-election.
“Over the course of the last 16 months we have pushed more change through these two chambers than has occurred in Connecticut in a long, long time,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said in his midnight address to the General Assembly.
Malloy described the change as “positive” and “meaningful,” but there are those who would disagree.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero and Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney sat stone-faced and tired in the House chamber as the rest of their colleagues went home or to the after-session party.
“Disappointment” would be the one word Cafero said he would use to sum up the session.
“It was a setback for fiscal responsibility,” McKinney said. “He said we wouldn’t engage in the shell games and fiscal gimmicks of the past and he’s stealing money and sweeping money from funds to cover operating deficits.”
Malloy used his 10-minute post-session speech to highlight what he felt were the accomplishments of the legislative session from closing the deficit to “putting more education dollars into our lowest performing districts.”
The governor may have gotten what he wanted out of the session, but legislative leaders in both chambers saw their signature bills die on the other chamber’s calendar.
Before the session began, Senate Democrats made a package expanding programs passed during last year’s special session on jobs their top priority. The bill, designated Senate Bill 1, passed the chamber with broad bipartisan support and has been awaiting action in the House. It died at midnight.
House Speaker Chris Donovan had been holding the bill in hopes the Senate would pass his legislation to raise the state’s minimum wage by 50 cents over the next two years. Williams has maintained that the bill did not have enough support among Senate Democrats, who were wary of the bill’s timing.
“We only pass bills when we have the votes to pass bills,” Williams said early Thursday morning.
The jobs package, on the other hand, was expected to easily pass the House. Asked why the bill was never given final passage, Williams said, “That’s a really good question.”
“I think folks are going to have a hard time understanding how a bill that was so popular — with such bipartisan support, that helps our economy when we need it most — did not make it out of the House,” he said.
Williams said he and Donovan worked well together throughout the session but said constituents would be scratching their heads over the inaction. Williams said he hopes to have the language inserted into a budget implementer during the upcoming special session.
Neither the Democrats, Republicans, nor Malloy declared victory. Instead of sticking around for the end of session party, many left to go home to their families, which may have been a sign of just how exhausted they were.
But Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s senior communications adviser, said the session was a productive one.
“In a few months, you’ve had education reform, far-reaching, meaningful, the biggest education package that’s ever been done in Connecticut, which most people didn’t think was going to happen in a short session,” he said.
Occhiogrosso said the session saw the passage of legislation allowing for design-build projects, enabling public entities to enter into project labor agreements, an expansion of voting rights, all in a very short period of time.
Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said Democrats tried to do too much in a short session, forcing lawmakers to rush on important issues. He said it started with the governor’s education package being drafted behind closed doors.
“I think that made it a very difficult and contentious session right off the bat. Teachers upset, legislators not agreeing, suburbs versus cities. It was awful from my point of view,” he said.
Lawmakers are supposed to address big issues during long session years and stick to adjusting the budget during short session, he said. That’s not how it worked out this year.
“We did death penalty, we did education, we did liquor laws, we had to obviously do the budget. We did huge bills,” he said. “That doesn’t help the state of Connecticut.”
Connecticut has a part-time legislature and many lawmakers have other jobs to work, he said. Attempting to address far-reaching and controversial issues over a period of three months isn’t right, he said.
“I find it somewhat offensive that you have a majority party with a governor of the same party who just pushed through an agenda that they wanted to push through,” Fasano said.
Malloy acknowledged the hard work of the legislature Thursday morning when he told them “being a legislator is supposed to be a part-time job, but it’s turned into a full-time commitment.”
The House chamber started laughing as soon as he uttered the word “part-time.”
And while the session is adjourned the General Assembly will return sometime at the end of May or June to pass what has been described as two bills to implement the $20.5 billion budget.