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OP-ED | The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly of the 2015 Special Session

by | Jul 3, 2015 8:00am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Analysis, Civil Liberties, Equality, Opinion, Public Safety, State Budget, Special Session, Taxes

The legislature met early this week to finish up its business from this year’s session, and managed to get a lot done. Some of it was very positive and should help Connecticut move forward. Some of it was a bit less so. And some of it was, well . . .  just ugly.

First, the good stuff. It turns out that the most important pieces of legislation to pass had nothing to do with the budget at all. The first was the Excessive Use of Force bill, which widens and empowers investigations of excessive force by police, requires body cameras for state police, and mandates that police departments establish guidelines for diversifying themselves. This bill, a longtime priority of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, is an important and necessary step toward making police relations with communities of color in our state more fair and equitable, and also toward holding police responsible when they cross the line.

Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, one of the champions of the bill, spoke emotionally in support during the Senate’s debate about how he had to tell his son about the danger of just walking out of the house. “I recognize . . . what police officers go through because of the inherent danger of their jobs,” he said. “But there should be no inherent danger in walking out of your house being black.”

The other necessary legislation that passed was Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s “Second Chance Society,” which, among other things, reduces prison time for non-violent offenders.

So in a single day the legislature moved to bring more people out of the miseries of the prison system and to make life for people of color a little less dangerous and difficult. For that, they deserve our applause and gratitude, and I hope they continue to work to address the systemic racism that still plagues our state and our country.

That was the good.

The bad arrived in the form of the massive budget implementer bill, which contains not only the budget but concepts from a number of other pieces of legislation that weren’t able to find enough support to pass earlier this year. The ban on microbeads, for instance, is in there, as is a Connecticut version of the Family and Medical Leave act. These are useful, but what do those have to do with the budget?

Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, called it a “Christmas Tree,” and he’s right. The majority Democrats couldn’t manage to scare up the votes to pass these bills separately, so they just tossed them into the huge impenetrable mass of the budget implementer and passed the whole thing.

To be fair, that’s a legislative practice that’s as old as time. Congress loves to put all kinds of unrelated crap in the defense spending bill, for instance, because that’s something that few people are ever going to vote against. People complain, but the practice never stops.

And yet relying on tricks like this to pass legislation is lazy, and underscores just how weak the ruling coalition of Democrats have become.

Another low point was the establishment of statutory protections for transportation funding. This in and of itself is not bad, but what we really need is an amendment to the state constitution so that lawmakers will have to keep their hands off of that money.

Then there’s the ugly stuff.

Let’s start with the plain fact that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy broke his promise not to raise taxes — the budget contains tax increases, and he signed it.

So what does he have to say for himself? Reporters asked him about it, and he tried to say he’d done better than previous governors, and that this was really more about “shifting” money around than taxes.

If you’re going to go back on a major campaign promise, governor, at least have the guts to own up to it.

Another ugly moment came during the debate on the portion of the Excessive Force bill dealing with recruiting and training minority officer, in which white and suburban lawmakers utterly failed to grasp what systemic racism is. Rep. Dan Carter, R-Bethel, for instance, said hiring preferences would discriminate against whites in places where they were the minority. Others claimed “reverse racism” and questioned why race was even being brought up at all.

The bill passed despite their ignorance, thankfully.

Overall, the session probably accomplished more good than bad. Now we get to see whether the latest combination of tax hikes and service cuts actually fixes our ongoing fiscal crisis. I’m not holding my breath.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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Archived Comment

posted by: Rumpole | July 6, 2015  9:02am

No, the legislative practice of bundling many bills and concepts into “implementers” or “battleships” or “Christmas trees” is not as old as time. It is a relatively recent phenomenon (15-20 yrs.) and reflects the decline in legislative practice and procedure in this state. Not so long ago, the legislators would explain, debate and pass bills one at a time, during the regular session. Proponents of bills had to understand the bills and be able to explain and answer questions during actual debate on the floor. Implementers are bad on many fronts: lack of transparency, inclusion of bills and concepts that died or never had public hearings, hidden “rats”, introduction a few hours before voting, and passage during the dark of night, to name a few. But they are also bad because legislators no longer have to read, understand or explain the concepts dumped into these behemoths. With 500 to 600 separate sections in a bill, there is little chance that anyone will ask what section 235 does and why. There is next to no legislative debate, no explanation, no questions and answers with respect to 95% of the content of implementers. With an absence of legislative history for the numerous statutory revisions, if a court tries to divine the legislative intent behind ambiguous language in the bill, it will be out of luck because the legislative record will be silent. Enabling legislators to skip their responsibility to read, understand, explain and debate bills is the real harm of implementers and the new way of doing business at the Capitol.

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