Despite setbacks, some notable achievements in the 2021 legislature

Photo of Ken Dixon

HARTFORD — Despite hundreds of remote committee meetings and COVID restrictions that closed the Capitol to the public and even prohibited full capacity in the House and Senate chambers until the very last hours of the legislative session, the General Assembly of 2021 had some notable achievements.

For starters, the two-year, $46.4-billion state budget that takes effect July 1, the chief goal of the 22-week session, was finished on time — mostly — and with bipartisan support. Gov. Ned Lamont’s opposition to proposed tax increases on the state’s wealthiest put him in a good position to run for re-election next year, whenever he decides to officially announce his candidacy.

On Thursday, Lamont said progressive Democrats’ proposal to raise taxes on investment income, led by Fonfara, was “a really dumb idea,” which he successfully opposed in the recent budget negotiations that led to the bill that was approved Wednesday night in the Senate.

The General Assembly will return to a special session. Leaders spent Thursday looking at next Wednesday but in any case, the session will happen in June. The reasons: To approve the massive budget “implementer,” details on how to execute the state budget; and to vote on legalized retail sale of marijuana, which passed the Senate in a close vote but expired in the House at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, when the session ended.

Now the Senate and House must both take up the 297-page marijuana bill, leading Senate members to joke early Thursday that they had so much fun they’re doing it again.

Many of the bills in the just-concluded session related to equity, especially in Black and brown communities. Some addressed the issue directly, such as the controversial clean-slate bill that would allow people with criminal backgrounds a chance to get their records expunged.

And some did so indirectly, including an update to the bottle-redemption law, which will expand the list of eligible beverages to include teas and sports drinks, and eventually double the nickel deposit. That bill contains a provision to provide venture capital for urban entrepreneurs to get into the redemption business in a state that has the lowest rate of returns.

Compromise legislation

It was a year with a few sweeping reforms — expansion of gambling to culminate a 6-year effort — and some attempts at reforms that fell short. Those include a housing desegregation bill that was watered down and Democrats’ hopes at health care access changes, with the ill-fated public insurance option at its heart.

The gambling bill, which Lamont signed into law, will put in motion a new generation of online casino gambling and sports betting, giving a lifeline to the tribal casinos, the Connecticut Lottery Corp. and the state’s Off Track Betting establishments.

The General Assembly, with a few Republican votes, approved compromise legislation that in September of 2022 will prohibit unvaccinated children from entering preschool or other grades, while allowing students currently enrolled in K-12 to remain in school. While Republicans criticized that only several hundred people were allowed to testify remotely on the legislation during a 24-hour virtual hearing, legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle admit that the ability to testify from one’s home or office, without driving to the State Capitol, likely offered an easier way for taxpayers to make their voices heard in the second year of the pandemic.

The state’s so-called red-flag law, which for decades allowed neighbors and family members to report to police people with firearms who might be a danger to themselves or others, was expanded to include dangerous weapons, and will let people to go directly to state courts for judicial orders that can result in the seizure of guns, knives and other things .

Lamont on Thursday signed the so-called clean slate bill. But in an accompanying letter, he asked lawmakers to revisit the issue and amend it so some ex-felons would not be able to gain clean records and gun permits. Also on Thursday, he signed a contentious zoning-reform bill that was originally aimed to force predominantly white suburbs to provide more affordable-housing opportunities, but was whittled down in the legislative-compromise process.

A former entrepreneur in the cable-TV market, Lamont said he wasn’t satisfied with a bill on access to broadband internet that won final approval in the waning minutes of the Senate on Wednesday night. “They took the guts out of the bill,” Lamont told reporters, but added that at least it would set up a framework of mapping areas of need and setting the scene for eventual infrastructure to serve under-served urban and rural areas of the state.

As many as 40,000 more low-income people will be able to obtain health insurance and join 130,000 people already enrolled in Access Health CT, the state’s marketplace under the federal Affordable Care Act set up under President Barack Obama, and which former President Donald Trump attacked but could not repeal.

Tax breaks, job protections

By Thursday afternoon the governor had signed into law 42 pieces of legislation, including tax breaks for data centers that would consider moving to the state; job protections for people to wear different hair styles in the workplace; making it easier for restaurants to continue serving outdoors; new safety requirements for ice cream trucks; and allowing adoptive children to obtain their original birth certificates, from which they had previously been prohibited at the order of birth parents.

Towns and cities will be able to set their own speed limits under another bill signed into law. Pregnancy centers that use deceptive advertising can be prosecuted under the state’s Unfair Trade Practices law. And Connecticut college athletes will be able to make money off of their likenesses.

After more than a year of sitting by while Lamont tackled the unknowns of the coronavirus with dozens of executive order, the General Assembly passed legislation that will give them a chance to review the governor’s future emergency responses.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities on Thursday praised the budget’s increase in municipal aid of at least $191 million in the first year and $237 million for the budget year that starts July 1, 2022. There will also be higher payments for cities that host tax-exempt properties such as colleges; larger grants under the school-funding formula; and $1.5 billion in bonding for capital projects over the next five years for 32 lower-income cities and towns.

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said Thursday in the Capitol that minority GOP lawmakers helped eliminate proposed tax hikes from progressive Democrats, including a regional climate change initiative that would raise the price of gasoline by about a nickel. Lamont hopes it might come back in the special session as part of legislation that the General Assembly needs to trigger the new budget on July 1. The tentative return for lawmakers is June 15.

During a traditional day-after-session meeting with reporters in the Capitol, Candelora said that after 15 months of closing to the public, he hopes that the 14-acre complex can reopen soon, possibly as early as Friday. One of the biggest victories was a new biennial budget with no new taxes at a time when billions of federal dollars are still streaming into the state, he said.

“Every budget should be bipartisan, Candelora said. “I think the public expects it to be the norm that Republicans and Democrats are working together. It was Republicans that held the line on taxes. And while it’s certainly a politically expedient position to take, we really felt it was a necessary one this session, given all the federal money we’ll have.”

With a comfortable 97-54 majority in the House and a 24-12 edge in the Senate, the budget battle was essentially between legislative Democrats and the Democratic governor. But Lamont said Thursday that he did confer with Republican leaders about the budget and their input was a factor in his steadfast opposition to raising income taxes, sales taxes and levies on capital gains.

Late Wednesday night, just before the witching hour, Senate leaders were encouraged to look around the circle of 36 Senate desks and chairs, filled with lawmakers for the first time since March of 2020. Up until then, the session had been remote and socially distanced, with only a handful of senators in the historic chamber at any one time, and cleaning crews on standby all the time, disinfecting desks as senators came in an out to speak on bills.

“It is so nice to see people in this chamber, sitting in your seats again, with your nameplates, and us to be able to literally be together in the chamber, again,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk.

Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney of New Haven said that in addition to avoiding outbreaks of the virus, the 2021 session was one of “great achievement” highlighted by a historic budget and other bills. “Humane, progressive, enlightened legislation, responsible legislation, a responsible budget,” he said, highlighting another bill that declared racism a public-health crisis.

“We’re concerned about all of the ways that lives have been disrupted in this state since March of 2020,” Looney said. Twitter: @KenDixonCT