The 2021 session of the Connecticut General Assembly kicks off Wednesday as Connecticut struggles with a brutal wave of COVID-19 infections. This session is going to be anything but business as usual, though. The way the legislature convenes, holds hearings, and votes will all be transformed to meet the reality of another pandemic year.
So what can we expect? How will things change?
The first and most obvious change will be what we won’t see: a packed chamber in the House of Representatives where members, their families, journalists, and more gather to listen to the governor open the session and deliver the traditional State of the State address. Instead, the legislature will be sworn in outside, weather permitting, on the north side of the Capitol facing Bushnell Park. The governor will deliver his remarks remotely from his office.
After that, most members of the legislature won’t see one another in person as business is conducted via Zoom or otherwise remotely. Legislators in both houses will have the ability to vote from their offices this session due to technology upgrades; this was only available to members of the House last year.
A major change will be in the way public hearings are conducted. Like everything else, public hearings will be moving online, so anyone wishing to testify will either have to do so using a remote platform like Zoom or submit electronic testimony ahead of time. There will be no crowded hearing rooms, no busloads of advocates in the lobby, and as of now, no way for anyone without access to the internet to make their voice heard.
Another element missing from hearings and from legislative life in general will be lobbyists, who will find it a lot more difficult to grab and hold legislators’ attention now that they won’t be passing them in the hallway or dropping into their offices.
Beyond the pandemic, there will be a few other major changes in store for the General Assembly. Three of the four leadership posts will have new faces: Rep. Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, will be replacing Joe Aresimowicz as Speaker of the House, while on the Republican side Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, will take Themis Klarides’ place as House minority leader and Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Shelton, will replace Len Fasano as Senate minority leader. How these leaders manage to work together or against one another will shape much of how the session goes.
As for legislation, don’t look for a busy year. Leaders have already indicated that the overall load of bills will be down from previous years.
That doesn’t mean that important legislation won’t be considered. Obviously, we’ll see some pandemic-related legislation of one sort or another, and I’m sure the legislature will be looking at some of the executive orders Gov. Ned Lamont has issued over the past 10 months. The governor’s extraordinary powers granted to him by the legislature in March will expire in February.
The shortened 2020 session left a lot of unfinished business to deal with. The legalization of marijuana is due to make a comeback, for example, though whether there’s enough support to actually pass it this time around is unknown.
Health care will still be at the top of the agenda. A public option for health insurance of some kind remains an elusive goal for Democrats.
Transportation funding is another big issue that the legislature needs to consider. It’s possible that the federal government will finally get its act together on infrastructure once the new administration settles in, but if we’ve learned nothing else from the past decade it’s that we can’t count on big fixes coming out of Washington. Gas tax hikes, bonding and yes, even tolls, should all be on the table as our roads and rails continue to crumble.
Other issues could include sports betting, zoning reform, racial justice, an economy shattered by the pandemic and police reform.
Then, of course, there is the major issue of the state budget, which has to be approved by the end of the session. In case you were wondering, the state needs to close yet another massive deficit this year.
There’s a chance that the legislature could look a lot more “normal” by the last month of the session, especially if vaccinations really ramp up, but for now both lawmakers and the public will have to embrace uncertainty.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.