Legislative committees typically hold their votes open for a few hours so tardy lawmakers can cast a vote, but members rarely flip their positions after voting. That wasn’t the case after Tuesday’s Public Safety Committee meeting when six Republicans yanked their support of a bill to eliminate a minimum staffing requirement for state troopers.
During the committee meeting, support of a modified version of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s bill seemed near unanimous, with only Democrat Rep. Linda Orange announcing her intention to vote against it.
But by the time the votes were finalized, 10 committee members had voted against it. It wasn’t enough to kill the bill, but it certainly raised some eyebrows.
Lawmakers jumped ship on the bill after Senate Minority Leader John McKinney sent his staff to inform Republican members of the committee that it eliminated the statute requiring the state keep 1,248 troopers on the payroll.
“It wasn’t until I read the bill coming up, realized 1,248 had been stricken. I asked my staff to inform the members of the committee that 1,248 had been stricken then they realized they weren’t going to support it,” he said.
Sen. Tony Guglielmo, R- Stafford, was absent for most of the meeting and Sen. Kevin Witkos, R- Canton, was in and out, however, it was made clear during the committee’s discussion that the language was being removed. It was the reason Orange said she couldn’t support it.
“In other words you’re taking away the statute? Yes or no?” she asked Rep. Stephen Dargan, co-chairman of the Public Safety Committee.
“That is correct,” he answered.
McKinney said he thinks that it wasn’t clear to the committees’ Republicans that was the case.
“I can make assumptions that once Tony found out and went in there and said ‘wait a minute,’ then other people found out and said ‘wait a minute this isn’t what we thought it was,’” McKinney said.
Malloy’s chief communications adviser Roy Occhiogrosso called that “a nice story” and speculated Republicans swapped their votes so they could make the trooper staffing levels a campaign issue.
“They decided to make a political issue out of this. I’m not shocked that that’s something that occurred in this building but let’s not hide behind excuses and fairy-tales. They’re probably trying to set up a campaign issue,” he said.
Occhiogrosso said even if Republicans weren’t listening during the committee meeting, the four-page substitute bill had been available since early Tuesday morning and the language removing the mandate was only on line 17.
“Is he suggesting the lawmakers who changed their votes didn’t read 17 lines of a bill they were voting on? Really?” he said.
In place of the staffing mandate, the bill asks the staff of the Program Review and Investigations Committee to conduct a study next year and arrive at a data driven recommendation for the appropriate number of state police.
If the study determines the state needs less than 1,248 troopers, the legislation requires the Public Safety Commissioner to do another study to asses the public safety impact of reducing police staffing.
The requirement has been largely ignored since it was adopted in 2001. The legislature has only appropriated enough money to fund that many troopers during one year. However, when the state laid off 56 troopers after their union rejected benefit concessions, the union filed a lawsuit to block the layoffs, citing the mandate.
The union recently received a favorable ruling from a Superior Court judge who agreed the current mandated number of troopers is a requirement. The Malloy administration is appealing the ruling.
Last month Malloy, proposed eliminating it and replacing it with a staffing assessment every other year from the commissioner of Emergency Services and Public Protection. But Dargan said members wanted to pass a bill that was more fair.
On Monday afternoon they decided to tap the program review staff for an independent analysis of the situation.
“Program review has done excellent work in the past, a non-partisan group. We as a committee said it’s a good way to save taxpayers money and use the resources we have,” he said.
Lawmakers were supportive of the study, but a few had concerns about the idea of reducing the number of state troopers. Sen. Joan Hartley, co-chairwoman of the committee, said the measure doesn’t cut staffing, instead it helps figure out what the appropriate number is.
“I don’t know what the number will be. I think what we are seeking to arrive at is a data driven, fully vetted position because, truth be known, I don’t know what the right number is,” she said.
Several members said the requirement currently on the books is an arbitrary number. Dargan said the part of the reason the law was passed in the first place was to make Connecticut competitive for federal criminal justice grants that were offered under the Clinton administration.
But Andrew Matthews, president of the Connecticut State Police Union, said the bill was an unfortunate rush to change statute. It doesn’t make sense to remove the staffing requirements before the study is conducted to determine if there were enough troopers, he said.
“We think this bill is a direct threat to public safety,” he said.
The bill passed 13-10 and will be sent to the floor of the Senate, but Matthews said he’s confident that once a broader group of lawmakers have chance to look at the proposal they will reject it.