Connecticut Speaker of the House Matt Ritter warned Wednesday that lawmakers who continue to drink alcohol excessively during legislative sessions could face serious consequences, including losing coveted committee assignments.
The Hartford Democrat said both he and House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, have recently admonished members of the Democratic House caucus "on multiple occasions" about drinking in the legislative complex, including the parking garage, while the House is in session.
Drinking alcohol in lawmakers' offices, especially during lengthy debates on late nights, has occurred for years at the Connecticut State Capitol and others around the U.S. But this year, as part of pandemic precautions, the Connecticut Capitol building remains closed to the public for the rest of the session, which ends June 9.
While a limited number of lawmakers are allowed to participate in person for House and Senate debates, some legislators are watching and voting remotely from their legislative offices. All committee hearings and votes were held virtually this year.
It's been during those House and Senate floor debates that Democratic leaders said some lawmakers have been drinking excessively, though they did not say how many.
"To say that this is being taken seriously is an understatement," Ritter told reporters during a briefing. "I think the incidents are a little more isolated, maybe not as widespread as some might think, but there's no question that we expect people to be adults, to understand the consequences of their decisions. And I have been very clear with people that if it happens again, there will be significant consequences associated with it.''
Ritter also noted "it's not just Democrats" who've been drinking excessively. House Republican leaders have also raised the issue during meetings with their members, according to a spokesperson.
"There are lines you cannot cross," Ritter said.
"If somebody ever left this building and injured somebody or themselves, I can't even begin to think about what those consequences would be and I don't want them to happen on our watches in leadership.''
Ritter's warning was first reported by a Hartford Courant columnist.
"It is different," Ritter said of this year's session. "I don't think that that's what I would say caused it. It's different here because there's a lot less people, quite frankly, which we did for COVID... But when you have very few people around and you have a lot of idle time and the ability to vote from your office, yeah, that probably has contributed to it a little bit, I think that's fair to say.''
State Rep. Robin Comey, D-Branford, on Wednesday issued a public apology for her behavior last week when she was seen stumbling over her words during an evening House debate. Her unusual conduct, captured on Connecticut Network television footage, prompted lawmakers to stop the proceedings and rush to her aid.
In a written statement, Comey said she "suddenly and unexpectedly began to feel unwell" while speaking on the early childhood education legislation on May 27.
"This was due to several factors, including anxiety, exhaustion, and, regrettably, the wine I had with dinner. In an abundance of caution, I did not drive home and remained in Hartford until the following morning.'' she said. "This type of behavior is not typical for me. I take full responsibility for my error in judgement."
Rojas stressed that all Democrats and Republicans in the legislature take their jobs seriously and these incidents "are the exceptions and not any kind of norm" at the state Capitol.
"Just because they're exceptions doesn't make it any more acceptable," Rojas said. "But I don't want the public to think that this is what's happening in any kind of regular basis here at the Capitol. There are people doing serious work and that's clear by the amount of legislation we've been able to move this session."