Four issues are stuck in the state legislature
State legislators head back to Hartford Wednesday for what they hope will be a productive three months of lawmaking.
The budget is in decent shape for a change, not that it’s a slam-dunk.
But some of the biggest issues on the table have been there for years, stuck in stalemates, not just between parties but within the Democratic Party. There is hope, though no clear indication that 2020 will finally be the year the Connecticut General Assembly — often ridiculed for its resistance to change — can cross them off the list.
The four stuck issues are tolls, legalization of adult-use recreational cannabis, gambling expansion and health care reform. Year after year, the debate has raged on each.
So what are the odds of passage this year? Even with a Democratic controlled House of Representatives, Senate and governor’s office, lawmakers aren’t holding their breath for an easy session. Especially in an election year.
Here’s what lawmakers are saying on the biggest, long-stuck issues.
Tolls: Bet on it
Let’s start with the “easy” one.
Almost a year to the day after Gov. Ned Lamont came out in favor of broad tolling, the legislature is expected to (finally) pass a very narrow version of trucks-only tolling.
“We will have voted on it by the end of the next couple weeks,” said House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford.
Of course, we’ve heard that before, but this time it sounds as close to a guarantee as is possible at this point.
Following several weeks of “on again, off again,” amid a 9-hour marathon public hearing on Friday, Democratic leaders met to work out the logistics of a vote that was originally expected to happen in a special session. Ritter said following the meeting with Senate President Martin Looney and Gov. Ned Lamont on Friday, he’s confident in the legislature’s ability to get it done in the first weeks of the regular session.
It’ll be a close vote though, which is the reason for the delay, he said. The House and Senate both need every member who’s agreed to vote in favor of trucks-only tolling to be present at the Capitol, and getting that guarantee outside of the regular session isn’t easy.
“There is no conspiracy, no berating, none of that,” Ritter said. “We have the votes but we have to find a date where we have the attendance ... We have members who are going to vote no, and we know that. Outside of the dates of the legislature, people schedule things like vacations and surgeries, they plan things so they don’t interfere with the regular session and it’s hard to get everyone there outside of those days.”
On Monday, for example, when leaders had hoped to vote on tolls ahead of the session, several lawmakers volunteered out in Iowa.
Marijuana: Don’t bet on it
The legislature has long been lukewarm on the legalization of adult-use cannabis, much to the chagrin of Democratic leaders and Lamont who all favor passage of a new revenue stream. The state Senate has even put it on their list of priorities for the 2020 session. It’s not the first time weed has made an appearance on the priority list, though.
Advocates were optimistic headed into the 2019 legislative session, but the measure died without a vote after legislators failed to come to agreements on sending revenue to urban areas and communities most impacted by the war on drugs. Members of the Connecticut Black Clergy Alliance opposed it, sinking support among racial minority lawmakers.
And with no public support from Republicans — and no ability outside of a constitutional amendment to put it directly to the voters — it’s up to the Democratic caucuses to both pass legalization and determine the parameters of regulation. Ritter isn’t optimistic a resolution is in reach during the short, 3-month legislative session.
Supporters had given up on a bill as recently as last fall. But with neighboring New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo making legalization a 2020 priority, and with Lamont and Cuomo vowing to work together, the idea is back. Ritter said don’t count on it, Connecticut.
“I don’t predict this year is the year, but I do think in the next couple of years we’ll see it happen,” Ritter said. “Let me put it this way: As the person that counts the votes, I need more than 10 people to come tell me they’ve changed their mind. Maybe people have changed their mind but so far I haven’t heard from anyone.”
Gambling: Don’t bet on it*
This one is complicated enough to earn an asterisk.
There’s strong bipartisan support for passage of a bill expanding gaming to include sports betting, and there has been for some time. But passage in this case relies heavily on negotiations with the state’s Native American tribes, which currently hold the rights to control gambling in the state, perhaps including wagers on ballgames.
Those talks have effectively stalled.
“It’s more complicated in Connecticut because of the tribes,” Ritter said. “If you give them exclusivity you may end up in litigation, if you don’t give them exclusivity, you might end up in litigation.”
On top of that, sports betting has only ever been proposed in an omnibus gambling bill that includes parameters for casino and lottery expansion, which comes with it’s own set of oppositional forces. Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, whose district includes the tribes and their casinos, has once again proposed a bill that gives the tribes what they want.
Ritter estimates that if the legislature and the tribes can agree to a “minimalist approach” — that is, an agreement on sports betting alone — there’s a high probability it will pass this year. That means tabling casino and lottery expansion for another day.
“I would hope that we would negotiate a very limited bill where we just tried to focus on sports gaming ... Less might be more in terms of what we pass this year, and if we can come up with a minimalist approach, I’d give it a 7 out of 10 chance of passing. It’s more than likely.”
Public health care option: Don’t bet on it
As the 2019 session drew to a close, Democratic legislators swung for the fences and proposed a measure known as the public option bill, so named because it contained a health insurance plan, the Connecticut Option, that would be designed and directed — but not actually operated — by the state.
The goal was to provide cheaper healthcare coverage for individuals and small businesses not covered by corporate or public employee plans. But in a state where the private health insurance industry employs more than 50,000 people in the greater Hartford area, the optimism was short-lived.
Expect a similar proposal this year, but don’t count on the chances of passage improving in 2020.
State Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, one of the authors on the 2019 bill, said health care is the number one issue on the minds of his constituents, and while he’s not sure there’s an appetite for a Connecticut Option this year, he would bet on the passage of a number of smaller healthcare cost-savings reforms like efforts to cap the costs of insulin.
“Whether the public option happens this year or not, I don’t know,” Scanlon said. “But I do know you will see some legislation this year that will lower the cost of health care.”
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