Opinion: Gail Lavielle and the art of sausage making in Hartford

State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143), one of the more thoughtful and business-like legislators in Connecticut’s democracy-averse General Assembly, recently gave on Facebook a painfully accurate overview of how legislation is made.

One of her constituents was wondering in what coffin the “regionalization/redistricting proposals will be buried” before the vampire is resurrected at the last moment to become, as Otto von Bismarck used to say, law.  Scholars are now quibbling over attribution, but Bismarck easily could have said, “Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made.” And indeed, there are sausage makers in the General Assembly, the majority of them Democrat, who do not want the general public to see how laws are made.

Lavielle responded: “… it’s too early to tell. I do think the Education Committee chairs will want to vote at least one bill out of committee. Here’s how budget bills work. When the Governor makes his proposal, it is delivered in both narrative form and in the form of a number of governor’s bills. Those bills eventually die, and much of their content is absorbed in what are called ‘budget implementers.’ The legislature first passes a budget bill, which essentially contains the bottom-line numbers and the most important line items within them. The implementers, which come afterwards (and are always rushed, giving legislators very little time to read them), contain the details of how the money is allocated and how the revenue is raised. So whatever is approved, or not — and it doesn’t have to be governor’s bills — ultimately appears in the implementers. Any bills that are passed on their own by both chambers are sent to the Governor to become law whether they are also contained in the implementers or not. Sometimes entirely new material that has never had either a public hearing or a vote appears in the implementers. It is a very confusing and not very transparent process.”

“During last Friday’s Education Committee public hearing on bills that would mandate regionalization of schools,” Lavielle noted on Facebook, “I had the opportunity to question Sen. Martin Looney on SB 738, a bill he had introduced. He had said several times previously that his intention in introducing the bill was merely to start a conversation on the issue. So I asked him why the bill — a concept bill, a type of bill that is usually vague and intended to lack substance — was not written that way; why it included specifics like mandating regionalization for school districts in towns of fewer than 40,000 people, using the model of the probate court districts, and requiring the bill to be implemented on a certain date, with or without legislative approval. His answer, which you can hear in the video, was quite stunning.”

Here is part of the colloquy with Looney, who answered Lavielle’s question by reacting much in the way the oversensitive princess in the fairy tale reacted to the presence of a pea under her mattress.

Lavielle: I’ve got to say something, which I say with all due respect; please believe me. But are you saying that you had that bill drafted in a way that would purposely mislead?

Looney:  No, I did not, and I think you know better than to ask that…

Lavielle: Well, I did it with all due respect, because I don’t understand…

Looney: The reality is that it was not intended to mislead. [Indeed, it was intended to lead the legislature to a prescribe course of action] It was intended to generate a discussion. Everyone knows that a proposed bill early in the session is coming into the process for everyone to participate in, and to vet it, and to change it within the wisdom of the committee. You’ve been here long enough to know what the committee process is.

Lavielle:  As I said, we’re all familiar with concept bills. But I think that answers my question, and I thank you very much for coming before us this evening.

Looney: Thank you.

In point of fact, Looney’s “concept bill” had quite a bit of flesh on the bone, much more so than the usual concept bill, which generally is written in such a way as not to impose specifics on the committee that is responsible for vetting and shaping the bill. And the proposer, in this case, was no ordinary legislator. Looney, as President Pro Tem of the state Senate, is a bill gatekeeper who determines which bills make their way through Bismarck’s sausage machine; he also exerts a great deal of influence as a legislative leader of the General Assembly’s Democrat caucus.

The Looney bill was not at all misleading. Just the opposite; it was leading majority Democrats to a pre-appointed destination. The bill to which Lavielle took exception was more in the nature of a marching order than a concept bill. Looney has been in the General Assembly long enough — more than a quarter of a century — to understand how legislative sausage is made. We are all familiar with concept bills, are we not?

Don Pesci is a writer who lives in Vernon. E-mail: donpesci@att.net

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