HARTFORD, CT — The first day of the legislative session is usually filled with pomp and ceremony, but this year is much different. There’s no script for how things will play out in either the House or the Senate.
On Tuesday, Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, announced he would resign from his House seat to take a job with the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which means the House Democrats will have a smaller 78-72 majority at least until a special election can determine a replacement lawmaker. This means just three Democratic lawmakers could force a tie on any piece of legislation.
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, will preside over the beginning of Wednesday’s session until House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz is elected speaker. Since the entire House votes on the nomination of a new speaker, typically a Republican would second the nomination, but House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, is expected to decline to do so.
Republicans have been critical of Aresimowicz’s decision to maintain his outside job as education coordinator for a state labor union while presiding over the House chamber as speaker. The Office of State Ethics issued an opinion last week saying there’s no conflict of interest between his day job and the post of speaker.
Meanwhile, Klarides was the only one of the four caucus leaders to issue committee assignments Tuesday. In doing so, she stripped Rep. Tim Ackert, R-Coventry, of his leadership position for unsuccessfully challenging her re-election as minority leader.
Klarides said Tuesday that she had her committee assignments lined up two weeks ago, but was unable to release them because there was still disagreement about whether they should consolidate committees. She said that she and Aresimowicz agreed to five committee mergers, but the Senate couldn’t find agreement on which committees to consolidate.
But Klarides didn’t let the negotiations slow her down. She said she figured out how long it would take to meet with each of her members in order to make the committee assignments and then got to work.
Rep. Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, who was nominated to become the next majority leader, said Tuesday that there are still a lot of moving parts and committee assignments may be available by the end of the week.
“We’re working on it,” Ritter said.
The Democrats, who lost 11 seats between the two chambers in the 2016 election, will still hold a slim two-vote majority on the larger committees, such as the Appropriations and Finance, Revenue, and Bonding committees, and a one-vote majority on the smaller committees.
Meanwhile, upstairs in the Senate chamber, Senate President Martin Looney, who recently received a kidney from his friend Judge Brian Fischer, is expected to return for opening day to be sworn in and to help adopt the rules for the next two years.
Following his surgery, Looney was able to broker a power sharing agreement with Republican Senate Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, who will adopt the title of Senate Republican President today. After the Nov. 8 election, the Senate was evenly divided 18-18 between Democrats and Republicans. However, it was still unclear early Wednesday whether one or two Senators would forgo their oaths of office to take other jobs with the state.
Sources said that a Republican Senator was considering Tuesday whether to accept an appointment to the Auditors of Public Accounts. Robert Ward, a former Republican lawmaker and commissioner from North Branford, retired from the office this summer.
The office of the Auditors of Public Accounts is a legislative agency whose primary mission is to conduct audits of all state agencies. The office is under the direction of two state auditors appointed by the state legislature. Fasano and Klarides will make the decision about who is appointed to the position.
Appointing a Republican Senator as an auditor would give the Democrats a one-seat majority in the Senate. Republican leadership in the House and the Senate have the authority to make an appointment to the post, which is considered a plum assignment with a starting salary of $150,000 a year.
However, there are also vacancies to fill in the Judicial Branch and there was some speculation Tuesday that Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, who is the first African-American to co-chair the Judiciary Committee, could be a candidate for the bench.
In order to be a candidate, Coleman, who has been a senator for 22 years, would have to go through the Judicial Selection Commission process and be approved by the commission before his name could be submitted to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for consideration. If that’s the plan, Coleman would be unable to take the oath of office Wednesday.
Coleman did not respond to requests for comment that were sent after business hours. Neither Kane or Coleman had submitted a letter of resignation to the Secretary of the State’s office before close of business Tuesday.
Supreme Court Justice Peter Zarella resigned from the bench last month to join the law firm of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter. Malloy, who was surprised by Zarella’s decision which comes three years before the mandatory retirement age of 70, has not nominated a replacement.
Last month, Malloy said he hadn’t thought about asking a lawmaker not to take the oath of office in order to be considered for the bench. But things change quickly in Hartford.
Fasano’s office was unable to confirm that either Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, or Sen. Tony Guglielmo, R-Stafford Springs, would be nominated to the Auditors of Public Accounts. Sources say all three were interested in the job.
On Tuesday, Fasano speculated that “the closeness of the numbers in the House, equal numbers in the Senate are going to have an impact on bills that get raised and move out of committee.”
He said he doesn’t expect as many bills to make it to a vote in either chamber.
At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, reminded his colleagues on the other side of the aisle that they can no longer be obstructionists.
He said typically 75 percent of the legislation passed in the Senate is unanimous and 95 percent of it is bipartisan.
“Some of the controversial stuff will die faster,” Duff said.
However, it’s been 10 years since Republicans voted in favor of a budget.
Duff said if Republicans want a seat at the table helping to negotiate the budget, then they will have to bring votes.
The last time Republicans voted in favor a state budget was during Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration in 2007.
Lawmakers will be staring down a deficit of $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion when they return.