As their first legislative session wound down, some of the freshman lawmakers reflected on what they said has been an atypical five months and a remarkable learning experience.
Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, laughed as she posted the “How a Bill Becomes a Law” School House Rock video on her facebook page Wednesday morning.
“One thing I learned this session: This is NOT really how a bill becomes a law,” Ziobron wrote in the caption.
Ziobron called what she learned from the inside “shocking.” She said she did not expect the number of strike-all amendments or late-night debates that are the norm at the Connecticut General Assembly.
“I think every single bill that has had significance, except for the bonding package, has been late at night,” Ziboron said. “I wish people really knew and I wish it could be changed up here . . . Who knows? Next year I may try to work with my ranking members to get a bill out of committee to make us adjourn at midnight. There’s really no reason for it except political. It’s strategy.”
But Rep. Daniel Fox, D-Stamford, said the late nights were some of his fonder memories.
“It’s part of the job. All of us up here, we love what we do. We’re involved in this process, not for the money, but the commitment to public service. You get to know a lot of people and get involved in debates,” Fox said. “The late hours of the evening [are] when you get a good appreciation of some of the various senses of humor that exist in the chamber.”
Fox, who was elected in a special election in April of 2011, said having the experience from the shorter session in 2012 helped him during the busier and longer session this year.
“I had a little better appreciation for the process: the manner the committee works, how the bills actually come out to the floor of the House,” Fox said. “I worked on local campaigns and my father was a state representative for 25 years, so I had some sense and understanding of the ongoings in the building.”
Fox added that though the session has kept him busy, he will leave the Capitol early Thursday satisfied that it was a “productive” five months.
“We began our session with such a sense of bipartisanship,” Fox said. “Working on the gun legislation http://www.ctnewsjunkie.com/ctnj.php/archives/entry/house_gives_final_passage_to_bipartisan_gun_control_bill/ and things of that nature. On a national level you read about politics and you hear that sides are butting heads constantly, whereas for the [House] and even in the Senate, we’ve worked together to address and resolve [the gun] issue. It’s a great achievement.”
Ziobron said working with her democratic colleagues was one of her favorite and most eye-opening experiences.
“One of the nice things is that you can build relationships with people on the other side of the aisle and get their perspective on things,” Ziobron said.
Ziobron said she came to Hartford with “realistic” expectations, and she is satisfied to have accomplished one of her primary goals: to keep an open line of communication to her constituents.
“Even on the floor, I’ll send out a question on my Facebook page or an email blast asking for input,” Ziobron said. “It’s been really helpful.”
Ziobron pointed to the GMO-labeling bill as a prime example of the dialogue molding her legislative action. Many of the members of the Republican caucus were opposed to that legislation, but Ziobron said she opened it up to her constituents to tell her what to do.
“I felt that my duty was to represent my district on that issue and because I didn’t have a strong case [against the bill], I felt it was important to represent those interests,” Ziobron said.
Ziobron said she was pleased to have a few check marks next her agenda items, such as getting action on cleaning up Sunrise Park in East Haddam. But Ziobron said one thing that disappointed her about the session was the budget.
She said one of the main reasons she ran for office was for an opportunity to have input on the state budget, “and all the spending and borrowing and the process that [the budget bill] went through . . . I think it’s a disservice to the people I represent.”
Ziobron also noted that she was surprised by some of the big egos displayed by some of her fellow representatives.
“I’m just a regular person. It’s fun for me to be up here and not get caught up in that ego,” Ziobron said. “People crack up when they see me wear my black glittery TOMs.”
But Ziobron said that despite all her unexpected learning experiences, she remains optimistic about the future.
“I’ve never experienced a short session, so it’s something to look forward to. I’m still smiling everyday, and I’m excited to [keep] learning how the process works,” Ziobron said.
She added that regardless of what her fellow lawmakers say, she’ll continue to wear her signature pair of black glitter TOMs.
A couple of senators, who had a few less late nights, said they thought the session was full of great moments and encouraging cooperation.
“I’ve loved it. I’ve truly loved it,” Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, said. “I got here and found out I would be chairing two committees and then working on the [Newtown] task force . . . you really have to learn on the go. I expected it to be huge amount of work, and it certainly was.”
Between passing sweeping gun control legislation, passing a biennial budget, and accomplishing a few items on her own policy agenda, Bartolomeo said it was a busy process, but a successful one.
“The way I looked at it was if I can get through this and do well, I guess it’s all going to be easier from here on out,” Bartolomeo said. “I was thrilled with what we were able to accomplish.”
Bartolomeo said passing mental health legislation that she worked on in the Committee on Children was one of the highlights of the session.
“A week before that vote, it was only democratic signers on that bill,” Bartolomeo said. “In the last three days before we passed the bill, I really don’t think I slept at all, but we were able to get eight Republican signers and pass it unanimously in the Senate and House.”
But Bartolomeo said she did not foresee the pace of the legislative process.
“When we first get in, we have to get our bills proposed and meet that deadline and that’s where I realized you have to be really good at multitasking,” she said. “I’m usually a very organized person, but I had to let some of that go just to accomplish the sheer volume of work coming at you.”
She said it didn’t surprise her that very few lawmakers were women with school-aged children.
“These last couple of weeks have definitely been challenging as far as my family. There’s no predictable schedule,” Bartolomeo said. “I would say that’s the hardest part of being up here.”
Sen. Art Linares, R-Westbrook, is the youngest member of the senate at 24 and said he decided to jump into the political arena to support small businesses. He co-founded a solar company, Greenskies, when he was 19.
“It’s been incredible, and it’s an honor to be part of it. Coming from the small business world, I’m used to things being done fast and right away,” Linares said. “This is a slower process, but we have to make sure the bills get done right.”
Linares said he came to Hartford with a purpose, and, for only one session of pushing his agenda, a lot has gone right.
“The most important thing to me is creating a climate here that’s conducive for job growth,” Linares said. “Part of that is making sure the workforce is educated and we did that through our education policy and bills that help UConn and educating engineers. And part of it is creating a business climate that would improve our attitude. There’s a lot of bills that we worked on that helped do that . . . [but] I wish we could have done more for the business community.”
Linares said he was also pleased with much of the compromising and cooperation that went on between the parties this session, but the budget sticks out as a disappointment.
“When I was able to sit down with other lawmakers, like working with Sen. Bartolomeo on the mental health bill, we were able to create policies that everyone was happy with,” he said. “So, I think that, had we been in the room with the budget, we would have been able to find some common ground. That’s definitely one drawback.”
Like Ziobron, Linares said when the session began, he quickly learned the legislative process does not always happen by the book.
“When I first got here, one of my colleagues said to me, ‘There’s only two things you don’t want to know how they’re made, and that’s sausages and legislation,’” Linares laughed.
As for what they’ll do when the session ends, Ziobron echoed the sentiment most lawmakers have been expressing in their final few hours in their respective chambers: “I’m excited to go home and get some sleep.”