Pot, gambling, election reform: Could the pandemic affect controversial legislation?

When the state legislature convenes Wednesday, one of its first tasks will be to approve new rules, same as every year.

This time around, Sen. Martin Looney declared, the rules will bring as dramatic a shift as the legislature has ever seen.

“It’s like moving from the quill pen to the computer all at once,” said the New Haven Democrat who’s president pro-tem of the Senate, starting his 41st year in the General Assembly.

That’s because of COVID and social distancing, with remote hearings and votes. It’s a budget year — the legislature debates and approves a state budget once every two years — and, with a lost session in 2020, more than the usual number of contentious issues could hit the governor’s desk.

The legislature could approve retail cannabis sales, for example. This could be the year for online sports betting and voting reform. We can expect debates about affordable housing and maybe even school desegregation measures, along with the fight over mandatory school vaccines that ended suddenly when the pandemic struck last March.

The question, then, is how and whether the coronavirus rules will bend the path for the toughest, most complex and controversial bills. Are they more likely to become law, or less likely?

“We truly don’t know the answer to that question,” Looney said, calling the situation “unprecedented.”

As a general rule, some insiders — including incoming House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, say old, familiar battles could reach a vote easily, while debates that haven’t aired will face higher hurdles.

Small-group discussion

Some nuts and bolts of the legislative process had to be overhauled. Previous rules required bills to be hand-delivered or sent by interoffice mail. That’s no longer possible.

“Obviously the inability for us to see each other in person in many ways will make lots of legislation more difficult,” said Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, the House majority leader.

The upshot will be more small-group discussions held by video conference. Rojas, previously co-chairman of the tax-writing finance committee, said committees in particular will find it difficult this year.

Committee chairs, he said, will have to be “far more assertive in reaching out to members.”

“We’re all just going to have to be more intentional about the work that we do,” he said. “We need to do a lot of that work we otherwise take for granted in other circumstances.”

New business, old business

“I would admit that the committee process is going to be a lot different,” Ritter said.

Some of the more controversial bills might sail through simply because they’ve been discussed for years, he said.

Online sports gaming? We all know the issue,” he said. “It’s not like there’s going to be some new wrinkle.”

Legalized cannabis sales? “It’s been debated for six years,” Ritter said. “Early voting? People know what early voting is. Election reform — I put that into the category of ‘been debated for a decade.’”

Complex issues that have not yet been vetted, though, will have a harder time being passed. Legislators will be spending more time in one-on-one discussions before a bill ever comes to a vote.

Newer concepts would require “a lot of time individually lobbying people,” Ritter said. “It’s not impossible, but it’s going to take a lot of work, or the issue has to resonate with the public.”

Public hearings

There are, however, some advantages to conducting legislative business remotely. State budgets are ultimately decided by legislative leaders and chairs of the budget committees, a group of about ten people.

By contrast, the legislature’s housing committee consists of 14 legislators. The public safety and security committee has 25 members. The appropriations committee, which sets a spending plan, has 51 members from every corner of the state.

Scheduling a time that every one of those members could be in a room together in Hartford has, in the past, been a challenge. Not this year.

“It might be easier to set up those meetings, because of Zoom,” Rojas said.

The same was true for public hearings. In previous years, if a person wanted to testify on a particular issue, they had to take the day off and spend it at the capitol in Hartford. This year, all testimony will be submitted electronically.

“You’ll actually get more public participation, potentially,” Ritter said.

But there is something lost. There will be fewer if any impassioned speeches before the assembled committee members, affecting the dynamic of the legislative process, Rojas said.

Those speeches on the most contentious bills can actually sway a legislator’s vote.

“We all lose something when there’s less in-person contact, Rojas said. “Absolutely you lose that human element. You can hear the emotion, you can feel it through Zoom but it;s certainly not the same as when it’s in person.”

Slower speed, fewer bills

This year, the deadlines for legislators to submit new proposals are being moved back a week, Looney said.

It’s just one example of how the process of passing bills will take more time.

“Everything’s just slower, and when you slow things down you get less bills,” Ritter said. “It takes time in a normal circumstance, it’s going to take extra time with COVID.”

It’s not that no bills will get passed. “There’s going to be tons of bills,” according to Ritter. “We don’t have the ability to do as many bills as we normally do. Everybody’s working from home. The speed at which the legislature works is based on factors that are not at play here.”

Incoming House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, agreed.

“I think that we all need to recognize COVID is going to slow down our process,” he said. “It’s going to be more difficult to complete bills. In the September special session it took well over three weeks to get seven bills in position to vote on them. And even though they were bipartisan, it took 14 hours for them to get through.”

Staff writer Ken Dixon contributed to this story.

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