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Connecticut Session Ends With 8 Minutes to Spare and Many Dead Bills

The Senate ended the legislative session with a 23-12 vote to pass a bill that will provide funding for striking workers. However, filibusters ran the clock out on other controversial bills, including those on Chinese-made drones and climate change.

Connecticut state lawmakers held an all-day debating marathon Wednesday, May 8, as they raced to beat the clock while facing a midnight deadline for the end of the 2024 regular session in an election year.

In dramatic fashion, Senate Democrats voted with about eight minutes left on a highly controversial measure as the final bill of the session to provide funding for striking workers. The bill passed, 23-12, on strict party lines with moderate Democrat Joan Hartley of Waterbury absent.

At the same time, bills banning Chinese-made drones and combatting climate change did not come up for votes as time expired at midnight.

Republicans staged filibusters in the House and Senate chambers throughout Wednesday afternoon and into the night, asking detailed questions and delivering long speeches on lower-profile bills in a traditional strategy to run out the clock so that no time would be left to debate bills that they sought to block. In the final days, more than 400 bills were still pending on the House and Senate calendars with many of them expected to die without a vote as time expired.

Rather than making the traditional post-midnight speech that can keep lawmakers at the state Capitol longer than expected, Gov. Ned Lamont showed up unexpectedly in the House chamber after 10:30 p.m. and received an ovation before moving around the room and shaking hands.

Among the Pending Bills on the Final Day:

Chinese drones suspended

After nearly three hours, the House suspended debate on a broad-ranging consumer protection bill that would prohibit Connecticut towns and state agencies from purchasing Chinese and Russian-made drones in the future. The reason is that some lawmakers are highly concerned about potential hacking aimed at gaining crucial information that could be sent back to China on infrastructure like water systems and electrical grids.

The debate had started at 7:30 p.m. and included a series of highly detailed questions by skeptical Republicans who were seeking to derail the bill.

The issue, contained in Senate Bill 3, has split lawmakers largely along party lines with Democrats in favor of the provision and Republicans against. The multi-faceted consumer bill also includes provisions requiring greater disclosure on hidden “junk fees” that are often added to concert tickets and other items that consumers sometimes overlook until the last minute when they are making a purchase. Shipping and handling are exempt, while service fees are not.

In Congress, where lawmakers remained deadlocked on most issues, legislators passed a law last year that bans the use of foreign drones for the military and the U.S. government.

The state police have already said they will stop using the Chinese-made drones.

As the Connecticut bill has been rewritten recently, the complete phaseout would apply to the state police by October 2026 and municipalities by October 2027. First responders like police departments statewide have already spent an estimated $1 million to $2 million on sophisticated drones, but they will eventually be replaced because the average lifespan is three to five years, officials said.

“You can still use the drones you have until 2027,” said Rep. Michael D’Agostino, a Hamden Democrat who explained the bill. “The people that your police departments are buying them from is an arm of the Chinese military. … There’s a 10-year period, up until 2034, that you can waive the bar. … We give you time to comply. We put $3 million in the bond package to buy those drones. … That’s all this bill does now.”

Noting that the sophisticated drones often cost $12,600, he added, “We’re not talking about drones that you buy off the shelf at Best Buy.”

One of the concerns is that the drones could be plugged in and a town’s entire computer system could be at risk for viruses.

The problem, lawmakers said, is that the Chinese-made drones are generally cheaper, and Connecticut municipalities have been buying them because of the lower cost. D’Agostino said that some similar American drones cost $14,000, while testimony this year said that some cost $30,000.

State Rep. David Rutigliano, a Trumbull Republican who serves on the committee that debated the drones, questioned whether Iran should be mentioned in the bill, but D’Agostino said Iran is on the federal government’s list.

“I’m a lot more comfortable with this section of the bill than I was with prior versions of the bill,” Rutigliano said. “We don’t want a drone transmitting data to an enemy of the United States. … I must say that I feel much better about it. … Whoever redrafted this has done a fair and reasonable job.”

The issue came to light when the FBI and a federal entity known as the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency released warnings that the drones could be a “significant risk” because they could collect video and photographs of water and sewer plants, emergency communications systems, and other key infrastructure.

Besides the federal ban, Connecticut would be following the lead of states like Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi that have banned the devices.

A crucial point in the bill is that cities and towns could obtain a waiver that would allow the governor’s budget office, known as the state Office of Policy and Management, to drop the funding and purchase provisions under certain circumstances. The local police or fire chief would need to explain why the municipality needed to keep using the drone that had been banned.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, a Hartford Democrat, said the drone issue had raised concerns among legislators.

“I’ll vote for it,” Ritter told reporters early Wednesday. “I think there’s some concern, but we’ll get through it. I think we’ll get the votes for it. The hope is eventually America will produce those drones. … I think it’s a good goal to make it in America. I like that.”

Republicans tried to tank the bill by saying that it should be referred to the energy and technology committee with less than five hours remaining in the session. But Democrats rejected the motion to refer on a strict party-line vote, and the debate continued.

Bond package approved

With less than three hours before midnight, senators granted final legislative approval to the annual bond package of nearly $2.5 billion that had been previously approved in recent days by the House. Senators voted 35-1 with conservative Republican Rob Sampson as the only lawmaker voting against the multi-pronged package.

The bill includes provisions written by Sen. John Fonfara of Hartford to address concentrated poverty in various U.S. Census tracts across the state that have high levels of poverty, low levels of education, and residents do not have automobiles.

Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, noted that another $625 million would be authorized over the next four years under an extension of the UConn 2000 program that requires the university to reach benchmarks for fundraising.

“There is a theme in all of this, madam President,” Looney said. “We weave our policy concerns throughout this document.”

Sen. Tony Hwang of Fairfield, the ranking Senate Republican on the bonding subcommittee, spoke in favor of the bipartisan bill that includes $2.476 billion for various projects for public schools, highways, housing, and higher education that includes UConn, the four state universities, and the community colleges.

“These dollars come from taxation,” said Hwang, one of two Senate Republicans who voted in favor of the Democratic-written bill on the reallocation of federal coronavirus funding. “There is no question about meeting the covenant of the bonding cap. … We are asking for greater accountability, greater respect for taxpayers’ dollars. … This bonding package is under the bonding cap, and we have done a service to the people of Connecticut.”

Noting that he lived in a federal housing project, Hwang said, “It is important to understand what abject poverty can do in making people do things.”

The Pyramids

Known for his long, winding speeches during Republican filibusters that sometimes refer to Egypt, state Sen. John Kissel of Enfield was interrupted by Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz at the beginning of his speech Wednesday night.

“Let’s start after the Pyramids,” Bysiewicz said. “We’ve heard that part before.”

Kissel then launched into a stemwinder that cited the late state Rep. Fred Gelsi of Enfield, the UConn basketball teams, Geno Auriemma, movie star Meg Ryan, the Great Recession of 2008, visiting the governor’s mansion during M. Jodi Rell’s administration, the recent bridge fire on Interstate 95 in Norwalk, and Joseph’s interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dream in the Bible.

Climate change denied 

With time running out, the chances were quickly diminishing that the Senate would debate a controversial bill on climate change that provides incentives for alternative energy like solar power and electric heat pumps.

The House previously had approved the measure by 94-56 after 4 1/2 hours of sometimes-impassioned debate as Republicans raised concerns. The measure was pushed chiefly by state Rep. Christine Palm, a Chester Democrat who is not seeking re-election. The issue, though, was that there was far less enthusiasm in the Senate than in the House.

Democrats hailed the multifaceted bill for taking steps like expanding solar canopies in parking lots and creating a task force to study electric transmission that would include offshore wind. The 23-page bill offers incentives like tax credits and business fee waivers, along with fostering training in green jobs, helping municipalities, encouraging water and air health, and supporting energy-saving grid enhancements. Republicans countered that the bill could cost $750,000 to $800,000.

Known as House Bill 5004, the measure was a high priority for House Democrats. Republicans noted that the bill contains incentives for consumers to switch to cleaner, greener energy, but they questioned how the state would pay for subsidies for expensive electric heat pumps and other items. They also said the United States could take action like closing pollution-spewing coal plants, but China and India keep running their factories at full steam.

Installing a projected 300,000 electric heat pumps in the future, Republicans warned, could use the same amount of electricity as powering 40 small towns.

The climate bill became more of a priority after lawmakers failed to take any action on incentives for electric cars.

Late last year, pushing for more electric cars was among the highest priorities for Gov. Ned Lamont and Democrats. But Republicans pushed back hard on a plan to pass a controversial bill that would have mandated that Connecticut adopt the California emissions standards and mandate that all new car sales in Connecticut starting in 2035 would be all-electric or plug-in hybrid. Republicans raised multiple questions earlier this year, saying that Democrats were moving too quickly without enough public input and no legislative hearings at the time.

Striking workers fund

Shortly after 11 p.m. Wednesday, the Senate started debating a highly controversial House bill that would create a $3 million fund to compensate striking workers for wages lost during labor disputes. The measure was a high priority for organized labor and Democrats who have supported each other for decades.

The controversial proposal cleared the House in a 90-59 vote Friday, cloaked in language that made no explicit mention of the word “strike.” Likewise, House lawmakers made no explicit mention of the bill’s full intent during a 3-minute discussion that preceded the vote.

House Bill 5431, which seeks to establish a “Connecticut families and workers account … for the purposes of assisting low-income workers,” is expected to meet increased friction from opponents in the Senate.

The proposal is seen as a compromise for labor advocates who hoped to pass House Bill 5164, which would have made workers eligible for unemployment benefits after 14 days on strike, starting Dec. 14, 2025. Under the bill, the Connecticut Department of Labor would operate the program under the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.

The legislation passed by the House would place the new benefit program under the direction and discretion of the state comptroller. Only two states, New York and New Jersey offer unemployment benefits to striking workers.

Sen. Rob Sampson, a veteran Republican from Wolcott who first won election to the House in 2010, described the measure as “probably the most brazen piece of legislation I have seen to date.” In an impassioned speech, he added that it is “absurd” that anyone who voluntarily left their job by going on strike should receive unemployment benefits.

Regarding the bill, Sampson said, “It’s just nuts. … The majority is reluctant to take ownership that it is the striking workers’ bill. … We don’t write bills like this.”

He added, “The majority is creating a slush fund for the comptroller to use as he sees fit. … No one would want to be stuck with such an irresponsible responsibility. … It’s shocking, and another thing it is is arrogant. … I don’t know what the purpose of this bill is. … It’s hard to even fathom.”

Sampson predicted there could be a future claim against the state, which could include a charge of interference in a labor dispute. “That’s what it is – brazen, arrogant trickery,” Sampson said.

Sen. Eric Berthel, a Watertown Republican, said that the measure was “a true slap in the face to every one of us. … I am just beside myself.”

Sen. Julie Kushner, a Danbury Democrat and former longtime union official who co-chairs the labor committee, said she was bringing out the measure on the Senate floor because “I have spent my whole life championing the causes of working families.”

Kissel, the longest-serving Senate Republican, said the money under the bill could be taken from a fund for fringe benefits that could be used for workers and their families. He questioned whether the money would actually help striking workers because they might not fit the legal definition.

“We didn’t have a public hearing,” Kissel said. “We didn’t have input from folks. … This is to help people who have low income, not no income.”

Senate Republican leader Stephen Harding, Jr. of Brookfield questioned why the proposed new fund was not included in the much-larger, 350-page bill that reallocated $360 million in unspent federal funds. The money would come from the current year’s budget surplus and carrying it forward into the next fiscal year.

“This is more fiscal mismanagement … outside of the fiscal guardrails,” Harding said with less than 15 minutes left in the session. “We’re creating yet another loophole. … It is ceding more authority outside of the legislature. … It is not good governmental policy to do things like this in the legislature.”

Senate majority leader Bob Duff said, “Who is standing up for our workers and who is leveling the playing field?”

Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney agreed, saying, “No one undertakes a strike lightly. … It is good. It is humane. … This provides some safety net in those circumstances.”

After the final vote, Looney said that lawmakers had completed “a wonderful, productive session.”

Within minutes of the vote, top labor leaders had immediate reactions in favor of the groundbreaking bill.

“Labor law is heavily weighted in favor of employers,” said Ed Hawthorne, president of the state AFL-CIO. “In fact, they have their thumb on the scale during negotiations. Corporate CEOs are attempting to maintain their power to starve workers out on strike while hiring replacement workers to do their jobs.”

He added, “Nurses, grocery store workers, group home workers, bus drivers, manufacturing workers, and countless others don’t have a fair shot to negotiate a living wage or affordable benefits when the law unfairly favors CEOs. But the General Assembly took a major step towards leveling the playing field for working people by establishing a fund to aid striking workers.”

Retiring legislators

In the middle of debating state Comptroller Sean Scanlon’s bill on retirement security at 2:40 p.m. Wednesday, the House called a timeout to honor retiring members who are not seeking reelection in November and were spending their last day under the Gold Dome in regular session at the state Capitol.

The nine retirees include Reps. Michael D’Agostino of Hamden, Christine Palm of Chester, Peter Tercyak of New Britain, David Labriola of Naugatuck, Charles Ferraro of West Haven, Rick Hayes of Putnam, Cindy Harrison of Southbury, Keith Denning of Wilton and Tom Arnone of Enfield.

D’Agostino told colleagues that he has been surprised recently when people have approached him and said “congratulations” as he is leaving.

“It’s a full-time job. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise,” D’Agostino told his colleagues in the cavernous Hall of the House, adding that constituent service is year-round. “You better be there for them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. … A burden? No. This is the best job in the world. … Look around in case you haven’t. This is your office. … The only thing better than the setting is the people who are in it.”

“That was a good speech!” Ritter responded from the dais.

In another speech, Denning said he did not realize how much work the job entailed as he is stepping down after one term.

“There are some fish out there that need to be caught,” Denning said, “and some grandchildren that need to be played with.”

Candelora congratulated his fellow lawmakers, saying that the grind of campaigning is not easy.

“This is a tough business where we are selling ourselves every two years to the electorate,” he said. “We will miss you all.”

©2024 Hartford Courant. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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