With Republican gains, Wilton reps look forward to next session

Last week, Connecticut may have voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton for president and Richard Blumenthal for U.S. senator, but farther down the ballot was a different story.
Although it is still too early to discern how it will shake out, when the Connecticut General Assembly convenes for its “long” session on Jan. 4, the number of Republicans and Democrats taking their seats will have shifted significantly. For the first time since 1893, Wilton’s state Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26) told The Bulletin on Friday, the state Senate is tied between Democratic and Republican representation, 18-18.
On the House side, with eight pickups (Republicans won 12 new seats but lost four), the Republicans are now down by seven seats with a 79-72 split with Democrats. As of Friday, three races were being recounted — two with Democrats leading, one with a Republican.
Will it make a difference?
“It makes a huge difference,” state Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) said, adding, “We are really, for all practical purposes, at parity.” That, she said, could result in greater collaboration between parties.
State Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-125) was equally enthusiastic — he answered the question with a resounding “Absolutely!”
On the Senate side, “a number of Democrat senators, like Paul Doyle, a fiscal conservative, have voted with Republicans on fiscal issues.”
“On the House side, we only need four Democrats to get Republican legislation passed.”
It could mean much more for Boucher, who termed it “a big deal.” She has been the only Republican woman in the Senate since first elected in 2008. Come January she will have company with the election of Heather Somers of Groton.
“This puts us in uncharted territory,” Boucher said. While it is clear Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, a Democrat, will break any tied votes on legislation, “what is not clear is the sharing of roles and power in committees,” she said. “Our point of view is there is no majority right now in the Senate.”
Boucher is ranking member of the transportation and education committees. Assuming she remains on those committees, will she remain ranking member or will she become chair? She does not know because at this point no one knows how chairmanships will be assigned. Legislators have yet to receive their official committee assignments for the next session.
When the Senate and House function as separate chambers, each votes independently on bills. Before floor sessions take place, however, legislators spend about half the session in committee. All committees are joint House-Senate committees, which the House controls because it has more members. All legislation must go through committee before it can get to the floor for a vote.
Using the Education Committee, where she is also ranking member, Lavielle explained there are two Republican senators and 12 Republican representatives.
“When the House gets up there in numbers, it significantly changes the dynamics on the committee,” she said. Next session, however, there might be 16 Republicans and 17 Democrats on the committee. “We can divide a motion and have House and Senate members vote separately,” she said.
“We are four votes away from a majority in the House,” she continued. “We’ll probably be one apart on every committee. The dynamic changes dramatically.”
That means, she said, if there’s a bill the committee chair chooses not to bring forward, they can force it. “If there’s something we don’t like, we can get rid of it,” Lavielle said. “There will be a lot more collaboration to avoid situations like that. At least, I hope there will.”
Even though Republicans are still fewer in number in the House and Wyman holds the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, there are Democrats who will be in powerful, but tough, positions.
“On the House floor there used to be eight to 10 Democrats who would vote against their budget,” Lavielle said on Friday. “There are at least four I can think of right now who would get in trouble [with their constituents] if they started voting for the budget. They, quite possibly, would vote with us on those budget matters.
“I don’t know if that means they are going to be forced [by their caucus] to vote for a budget or the budget will be better,” she added. “It’s so close that it either forces defection or collaboration, and we will see which.”
Boucher agreed, saying Democrats who might choose to not go along with their party will become more powerful. “It will be interesting to see how this plays out.”
O’Dea, who said more business- friendly legislation will come through in the next few years, said, “I have spoken with [incoming] Speaker Joe Aresimowicz and he has promised to be collaborative; and I trust him to abide by his word.”
All three agreed the shift in legislative numbers had more to do with a “repudiation” of Gov. Dannel Malloy than the presidential race, although O’Dea said that “business as usual in Hartford and D.C. is over. People don’t want to see runaway government. People want people to build business, create jobs and provide for themselves.”
“People distinguished that vote,” Boucher said. “They are dissatisfied with the way things are being run with the majority [in Hartford].”
“It’s clear the voters understood the issues in Connecticut are specific to Connecticut,” Lavielle said. “It had nothing to do with the typical ideological bent in the national election.”
Taxes, jobs, infrastructure, education, and social services are all on people’s minds, Lavielle and Boucher said.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Connecticut except policy,” Lavielle said. “You can fix policy. I think people got it. It has nothing to do with their political party. I’m very encouraged by it. It renews your faith in human nature and what’s important to people.”
Boucher thinks maybe the Malloy administration is getting it, too.
“The governor called the leadership and said they wanted to talk,” she said. “That’s new. Every proposal we put out, they shut the door. They didn’t include us on the budget meetings. This is a new day. New votes have forced the issue and compel them to sit down and negotiate.
“That’s the desire on everybody’s part,” she continued. “Working together, seeing where the problems are, we can bridge that gap. Sometimes you have to give up a little on both sides. People want government to work, but they want it to work for them. You have to be a stronger voice for the people out there.”
Both Boucher and Lavielle agree the budget will be front and center next session, but education and transportation will also be top priorities.