State Capitol

Lawmakers Set to Return to the State Capitol for In-Person Debate and Vote

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Four months after the pandemic forced the State Capitol to close, lawmakers are set to take up some unfinished business and tackle other pressing issues.

As they get ready to return in person, each chamber has its own plan to keep this special session safe.

“The building is built for, during a session day it has over 1,000 people.  We can't have that right now,” said Senator Majority Leader Bob Duff.

After ceremoniously gaveling in the special session this Tuesday, senators will debate and vote in person from their small chamber next Tuesday or Wednesday. 

"We have a really good graph and drawing about how we can get people in and out of there,” Duff explained.

He said two desks will be set out on opposite sides of the room for members to ask questions from and debate.

The state legislature is going back to work this week, but the special session will look different from any before.

In the House, members who want to speak on a bill will hit a button on their computer which will put them in a queue. Lawmakers will be brought into the House Chamber when it is their turn to debate, and be required to wear masks and stay socially distanced from their colleagues.

New technology will also allow members to vote from their computers in the Capitol or Legislative Office Building starting this Thursday.

 “People can also be in the House chamber, the bottom line is everyone needs to be on the Capitol campus in order to vote,” said Deputy Minority Leader, Rep. Vincent Candelora, a Republican from North Branford.

“We’re not limiting the number of people in the chamber per se. There are certainly people that need to be in there,” said Candelora. “It’s just going to be a lot of sort of managing the number of bodies that are in the chamber.”

Governor Ned Lamont has called for the special session to start on Tuesday.

“COVID-19 has interrupted nearly all state business. There are several urgent items that we need to consider in order to move our state forward," Lamont said.

Those issues are: police accountability, making the coronavirus an acceptable excuse to vote absentee in the November election, expansion of insurance coverage for telemedicine beyond the pandemic and capping the cost of insulin, the only one of the four bills that was discussed during the regular session.

“I was stunned to learn that 25% of diabetes patients in this state ration their insulin because of costs. This isn’t an optional or elective medication.  This is something they need to stay alive,” said Sen. Will Haskell, a Democrat from Westport.

Candelora said their work in the House could be wrapped up in a day.

“I expect it to take at least six hours, but if we have a fight on our hands it could go well into Saturday and well into the weekend,” he said.

That fight will most likely be over absentee ballots and police accountability.

The latter removes qualified immunity, which protects officers from lawsuits.

“To think that they’re now going to have to go into work knowing that they could lose their home and be personally sued if this legislation is passed is pretty horrific and I think is going to decimate our police departments,” said Candelora.

Qualified immunity has been a source of controversy since a draft of the bill was made public. When asked if the clause will be removed from the final version of the bill, Duff said: "At the moment it's still in, but we'll see what ends up happening."

Holding a majority in both chambers, Democrats do not need Republican votes if they have enough support within their own party.

The narrow scope of the agenda concerns some members. A second special session is already being planned for September.

“We can’t turn a blind eye to what just happened in nursing homes, where 70% of COVID-related deaths occurred and to not have anything on the agenda for that,” said Senator Kevin Kelly, a Republican from Stratford.

Duff noted that legislation, including the Senate Democrats’ “Juneteenth Agenda” dealing with racial inequality will likely be part of the September session.

Candelora also said the legislature will need to codify the governor’s pandemic-related executive orders that expire that month.

“I can’t wait to get back to that other portion of my job too, which is making sure that the legislative branch is viewed as a co-equal branch of government and that we have a say in our state responding to this hopefully once in a lifetime pandemic,” said Haskell.

While the capitol is closed to the public, their input on the issues is still being sought online, like last Friday’s listening session on police accountability.

“It actually brought down the barriers that a lot of my constituents face in terms of traveling all the way to Hartford,” said Haskell.  “Now, for the first time, people could participate in the legislative process from the safety and comfort of their own home and I think that as we continue to adapt the legislative process to the 21st century we ought to look for more opportunities to get people involved, not fewer.”

However, Kelly noted that not everyone has access to computers or the internet, especially the elderly and those in need.

“We’re getting some voices. I don’t believe we’re getting all voices,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Insurance and Real Estate Committee will hold listening sessions, their version of a virtual public hearing, on capping co-pays on insulin and expansion of insurance coverage for telemedicine at 10 a.m. A separate listening session will start at 2:00 p.m. in the Government Administration and Elections Committee, on the wider use of absentee ballots in the November election.

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